Affordable Housing in Cairo: 2023 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois

“As a member of the Alexander County Resident Advisory Council, I feel the closure of the Connell Smith Building is unfortunate and unnecessary. If HUD insists on closing it, there needs to be an affordable housing development plan in place through new construction or through adaptive reuse of Cairo’s historic resources.”

-Steven Tarver, Alexander County Resident Advisory Council


Cairo, Alexander County
Connell F. Smith Sr. Building: 1101 Ohio St., Cairo, Alexander County


Connell F. Smith Sr. Building: 1968


Connell F. Smith Sr. Building: Art Kaha, Lee Potter Smith Associates


Connell F. Smith Sr. Building: Alexander County Housing Authority (HUD governed through receivership)

(Photo credit: Don Patton, Cairo Historical Preservation Project)


Following a series of public housing complex closures, including one pending, the once prosperous port city of Cairo is facing an affordable housing crisis. Cairo’s history of housing insecurity dates to the aftermath of the Civil War when newly freed Black southerners flocked to the southernmost town in Illinois, a former stop on the Underground Railroad and an important staging area for the Union army. Cairo’s Black residents formed a vibrant community, but they also faced years of segregation, housing discrimination and poor living conditions. Although Cairo contains a number of historic resources, in recent years the town’s legacy has been overshadowed by an intense but reversible housing shortage.

(Photo credit: Don Patton, Cairo Historical Preservation Project)


In October 2022, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) unexpectedly announced that Cairo’s Connell F. Smith Sr. Building — a 1968 public housing complex that is currently home to around 60 residents — has been deemed unsafe in the event of an earthquake and will soon be demolished. This will be the fifth public housing complex in the Cairo area that HUD has closed in recent years. The closure of the Smith building will exacerbate Cairo’s existing housing crisis by displacing a significant portion of its dwindling population, a group of residents who want to remain in Cairo. Although residents of the Smith building will receive housing vouchers and help with relocation expenses, there are few public or private affordable housing units left in the area, and HUD does not plan to assist in building more.

(Photo credit: Don Patton, Cairo Historical Preservation Project)


HUD must not tear down the Smith building without providing adequate replacement housing for its residents. With $40 million in Rebuild Illinois funds earmarked for an upcoming public port project, Cairo is due for a period of revitalization. The town’s remaining citizens should be allowed to stay and reap the benefits. Local preservation advocates have called for HUD to:

  • Immediately bring in temporary, emergency housing for displaced residents
  • Partner with private developers and provide incentives for the redevelopment of existing historic resources for the development and construction of new homes and affordable housing; and/or
  • Reconsider their decision to demolish the historic Smith building and pursue seismic retrofitting measures instead.

(Photo credit: Don Patton, Cairo Historical Preservation Project)


(Pictured: McBride dwellings, now demolished)

Support our advocacy

Be a voice for the future of our communities by supporting Landmarks Illinois. Our work enhances communities, empowers citizens, promotes local economic development and offers environmentally sound solutions.

Become A Member