Family Of 7 Fights For Better Living Conditions At Taft Homes: 'You Can't Treat A Dog Like This'
The new Taft Homes is coming – but demolition of the existing housing must be done in phases. The Peoria Housing Authority is moving current tenants into existing units toward the front of the complex while rows at the back end are torn down.
One family, however, slipped through the cracks.
Direna Gardner was recently told the Housing Authority could not accommodate her family of seven – two adults and five children – at the front end of the complex.
They asked her to vacate the five-bedroom unit where her family has lived since 2019 and temporarily live in units 63 and 64 – which have been combined into one by knocking down an interior wall – until new housing is completed.
Gardner's current lease ends Sept. 30. The Housing Authority wanted her to move on Monday, Aug. 23.
At first Gardner was on board with the plan. But then she saw the inside of units 63 and 64.
She saw an exposed gas pipe, water-damaged cabinets and uncovered outlets. Dozens of maggots crawled out of a toilet bowl.
On Saturday, she asked the authority to address these issues before moving in. At the least, she asked, could her family be put into a hotel in the interim?
No, she was told – the authority expected her to vacate her current apartment on Monday – or risk forfeiting low-income housing benefits.
“They're trying to manipulate me into taking that apartment,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘Deal with the mold, we're just gonna pray that your kids don’t get sick.’… Basically they just want me to be quiet, put my kids in that apartment, until I got a house over here. … What did I do to get treated like this? … If you guys want to screw me over, fine. But you’re screwing over my kids.”
A WCBU reporter toured Gardner’s current apartment as well as the apartments where the family is expected to live on Thursday – four days after the Peoria Housing Authority wanted Gardner's family to move.
WCBU also reviewed paperwork and documentation from communications between Gardner and the Peoria Housing Authority.
By Thursday afternoon, about half of the uncapped outlets in units 63 and 64 had covers. A fresh coat of black paint covered the interior of the cabinets where Gardner said she observed mold. Deep under the kitchen sink, however, a WCBU reporter observed ripped drywall and water damage.
In a statement provided to WCBU on Thursday, the Peoria Housing Authority acknowledged it worked to “combine” units for families who needed larger units than what was available. No residents are being asked to move into uninhabitable units, and families are not forced to live anywhere, the statement said.
"Cited deficiencies" have been resolved, and there have been "no verified reports of mold," the statement said.
“There are no residents being permanently displaced and no residents being forced into homelessness,” the statement said. “The PHA has been working with the family and city inspectors to ensure the unit is ready for final move-in. … The family has a right to refuse the unit.”
Kristen Meierkord, president of the Peoria chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, initially learned about Gardners' plight on Facebook last weekend.
She visited Taft Homes first on Monday, and then again Thursday. During both visits she witnessed code violations inside the new apartment, she told WCBU.
“I hate to see any family going through something like this,” she said. “I think the biggest problem here is miscommunication between the Peoria Housing Authority, Taft workers, city workers … I’ve witnessed things first-hand. And I’ve heard things being said by the same person, contradicting themselves.”
Gardner worries about how local agencies will retaliate against her if she speaks out. But she feels she must stand up for her children.
“I’m not asking them to give me a mansion. I’m not asking them to give me a million dollars,” Gardner said. “I’m a human being. All I want is for someone to be accountable. When they sold the building, they should have made sure they had proper housing for their tenants. They failed to do that.”
‘We just gotta make the best of it’
Gardner moved to Peoria for a better life.
Originally from Harvey, a south suburb of Chicago, the 33-year-old became homeless in 2018.
For a year-and-a-half, Gardner and her husband lived with relatives in Harvey, bouncing from house to house while keeping her children in school.
Gardner’s four sons and daughter often asked when they would have their own home. After nearly two years of homelessness, Gardner and her husband decided to leave the Chicago area.
Her older sister and brother had already relocated from Peoria, a city 2½ hours southwest of Harvey. In October 2019, Gardner applied for low-income housing.
The Peoria Housing Authority accepted her application. The authority happened to have a four-bedroom apartment available – unit 314 – inside Taft Homes.
Constructed in 1952 and named after an Ohio Senator, the Robert A. Taft Homes development was originally built to serve as temporary housing for veterans of the Korean War. The housing complex is adjacent to the Illinois River and just north of Downtown Peoria.
Soon after the end of the Korean War, the buildings were transitioned to low-income housing.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development physically inspected Taft Homes five times from 2013 to 2019, and of those visits, Taft failed three inspections, according to data compiled by ProPublica. The most recent inspection score was 46 – 31.4 points worse than the Illinois average (77.4).
Last year the Illinois Housing Development Authority awarded 9 percent multifamily Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to the PHA and Kenosha, Wis.-based Bear Development for the redevelopment project – which will eventually replace outdated, barracks-style with 142 brand-new units.
Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, the PHA is able to fund the project by leveraging private capital.
Construction was supposed to begin April 2021, but was delayed to this summer.
When Gardner moved in, she knew Taft wasn’t perfect. The playground was littered with heroin needles.
The ceiling of the kitchen’s back corner had notable water damage. Holes in the floors allow families of mice to roam freely around the apartment. Cockroach sightings are common.
But it wasn’t the streets, Gardner said.
“I thought, ‘It beats living with someone. And it’s ours,’” she said. “’So we just gotta make the best of it.’”
Garnder’s five children – four sons and one daughter – settled into their classrooms at Lincoln Middle School. They love learning, their mom said. One of Gardner’s sons plays the trumpet.
Peoria seemed like a city where her family would thrive. And it was a home she wanted to help make better. After a Family Dollar was looted last summer Gardner drove to the store with a dust pan and broom and swept up broken glass.
With Garnder and her husband unemployed, their initial monthly rent was $50. When Gardner was hired at Casey’s rent jumped to $309. Working as often as she could while caring for her children during the pandemic, Gardner earned $12 an hour.
Because the family does not have a bank account, the housing authority withdraws funds for rent from her work card, Gardner said.
In 2019, 95% of heads of household among Taft's 403 residents were minorities; 95% earned below 30% of Peoria's Area Median Income, according to ProPublica.
For the Gardners, rent is only about 30% of the family's income, but there have been other housing-related expenses since moving to Taft, Gardner said.
When the first warm months of 2020 rolled around, Gardner invested in a window AC unit and fans. And when the heater temporarily broke, Gardner used her stove to heat the house.
The upstairs bathtub sits directly above the far left-hand corner of the kitchen. Shortly after moving in, Gardner noticed the tub took hours to fully drain. One day, the kitchen cabinet below the tub filled with water, ruining a pantry’s full of groceries and leaving mold exposed.
Gardner put in a work order this summer. When the maintenance worker came out, however, he claimed the root cause of the water damage was the toilet, not the tub, Gardner said. The housing authority replaced the toilet – a $300 expense – and stuck Gardner with the bill.
They claimed one of Gardner’s children stuck a toothbrush in the toilet, leading to the water build-up. (The authority did not show Gardner the alleged toothbrush or take photos of the toothbrush, Gardner said.)
After the toilet was replaced, the tub took about seven hours to fully drain. In the kitchen, water filled a lighting fixture. The cabinets were soaked. A hole formed in the ceiling.
The housing authority is still trying to charge Gardner $300 for the toilet, she said.
Part of what scares her about agreeing to move into units 63 and 64 is that outstanding balance – and the fact that the housing authority provided her with a lease beginning Oct. 1, but for her current residence, Gardner said.
She wrote a letter to the Housing Authority asking for clarity.
In its statement, the PHA did not comment on the outstanding $300 bill.
‘No person should ever have to live like this’
Gardner said her experience at Taft Homes has nearly cost her her sanity.
In every conversation with a different staff member Gardner said she hears conflicting information. Some staff promised that her family would be first in line for new housing once Taft construction is completed.
Taft residents were given free moving boxes and packing supplies this summer. But a staffer misplaced Gardner's supplies at a neighboring unit, and a rainstorm ruined them, Gardner said.
"They're treating us like animals," she said.
Ultimately, Gardner does not understand why some residents have been allowed to relocated to "scattered site" housing on the East Bluff while her family is being forced into makeshift housing at Taft – housing that that may pose the same health issues she's faced for the last two years.
After showing the housing authority pictures of cabinet water damage and other issues in units 63 and 64 and still being told she'd have to move into the units, Gardner put pictures on Facebook showing the new unit.
Someone tagged Meierkord, who agreed to come see Gardner’s housing for herself – not as president of the local ACLU, but simply as a concerned neighbor in nearby East Bluff.
She was appalled at what she saw.
“That’s a normal sized family. She cannot be the only one in this situation,” Meierkord said. “I think it’s vile. I think it’s appalling. The manager said she would never put a family in a house or unit that she would not put her own family in. I call BS. … No person should ever have to live like this. No one.”
Gardner knows she’s not alone. Her friend Michelle Allen lives in Peoria Housing Authority’s senior building. Allen said she feels horrible for Gardner.
“They should put her in a livable unit. Put her somewhere where they’re gonna be safe. And not be in harm’s way,” she said. “It’s frustrating because I can’t do anything about it. Because I’m in the same situation.”
Allen said her air conditioner and fob key are broken, and her work orders have gone unanswered. When her refrigerator broke during the pandemic, she was told it was non-emergent.
“They’ll send you stuff when rent’s due. But they won’t fix nothing,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
Katrina Johnson is Gardner’s older sister. She moved to Peoria from Harvey five years ago and was happy when Gardner, the “baby girl” of the family, followed.
She said she hates to see what her niece and nephews are going through. But no matter what, she said, the family will not allow the children to be homeless again.
“It’s not gonna happen. Housing gonna do something about it,” Johnson said. “For real. We’re gonna sit out there with signs. … It’s not acceptable.”
A looming crisis
Gardner has looked for four-bedroom apartments in the Peoria area, but it’s hard finding something within her budget.
“It’s hard finding a place. It’s not easy,” she said. “Most people are afraid to rent their homes because they don’t think people wanna work. That’s not true with me. I love to work. I am willing to pay.”
If Gardner could find an apartment she could afford on her own, she said she’d give up her housing benefits in a heartbeat.
“Kick me off low income, that’s fine. I don’t wish low income on no one,” she said. “If you are able to work and you’re able to get up and make some time of income. … and not depend on the government. … To be honest, I don’t even want to be on low income. It’s a headache. Its stressful. All they care about is money. … I have a job. I love to work. All I want is respect.”
Meierkord said this issue is only about to get worse.
Peoria is already facing a shortage of rent-able housing stock, she said. Across Peoria, and in her neighborhood of East Bluff, landlords are auctioning off their homes – leading to tenants losing their housing.
And the eviction moratorium, while extended through October, has an end date.
“So many people are going to be homeless,” she said.
Gardner’s oldest son turns 13 on Sept. 28.
Before this summer, he wanted to go to a hotel pool for his birthday. Now, Gardner said, he’s asking for his parents to keep them housed.
“My children are furious. They’re upset,” she said. “They wanna know how everyone in the Taft is moved, and we’re stuck here. … You can't treat a dog like this. How come you guys allowed to treat humans like this?”
In the meantime, Gardner hopes to connect with other Housing Authority tenants who are in the same boat. She created a Facebook group called Victims of PHA.
Are you a resident of Taft Homes? Share your story with WCBU.