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'It's Deplorable': Neighbors, Activists Rally Around Family Living At Taft Homes

group protest.jpg
Hannah Alani
Taft Homes will be torn down by the Peoria Housing Authority.

Damond Gardner, 11, just started sixth grade at Lincoln Middle School.

But instead of doing homework after school on Tuesday, he stood outside in the rain on North East Adams Street alongside his four siblings, parents, neighbors and a handful of community activists. The group protested housing conditions at Taft Homes, a low-income housing complex north of Downtown Peoria.

The protest was prompted in part by the story of Direna Gardner, Damond's mother, who shared her story with WCBU last week.

Damond said he wished the people who worked for the Housing Authority would respect his family and neighbors enough to be willing to trade places with him and his siblings — even if just for a day.

"It's nasty," he said. "They should move there. As a matter of fact, nobody should move there. They need to treat people how they wanted to be treated. It's a two-way street. From me to you, from you to me."

taft protest.jpg
Hannah Alani
Neighbors and activists protest housing conditions at Taft Homes on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

The Peoria Housing Authority is slowly beginning the process of tearing down and rebuilding Taft Homes, a barracks-style public housing complex originally built in 1952 as temporary housing for Korean War veterans.

Local officials have pushed for redevelopment since 2009. After one failed attempt at redeveloping Taft with an Ohio-based developer, the Housing Authority is working with a group out of Wisconsin on the project.

But demolition of the existing housing must be done in phases; the Housing Authority is moving current tenants into existing units toward the front of the complex while rows at the back end are torn down.

Direna Gardner, a mother of five, was told the Housing Authority could not accommodate her family at the front end of the complex during upcoming on-site construction.

Family Of 7 Fights For Better Living Conditions At Taft Homes: 'You Can't Treat A Dog Like This'

The Authority 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.

When Gardner toured these units on Saturday, Aug. 21, she saw an exposed gas pipe, water-damaged cabinets and uncovered outlets. Dozens of maggots crawled out of a toilet bowl.

Taft maggots.jpg
Direna Gardner / Provided
Inside unit 63 of Taft Homes on Thursday, Aug. 20, Direna Gardner observed and photographed maggots crawling in a toilet.

Gardner's current lease at unit 314 ends Sept. 30. The Housing Authority wanted her to move on Monday, Aug. 23. When Gardner asked if the Housing Authority would put her family in a hotel in the interim, she was told no.

Gardner works at Casey's and earns $12 an hour. She said she has faithfully paid her rent at Taft for years, and that she, her neighbors and her children deserve better.

“My children are furious. They’re upset,” Gardner 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 a statement provided to WCBU last week, 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.”

Upon touring units 63 and 64 last week, a WCBU reporter observed water damage under a kitchen sink, uncapped outlets and an exposed gas pipe.

Hannah Alani
The backside of the cabinet under the kitchen sink in unit 63 at Taft Homes as observed by WCBU on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.

Nicholis Hall was one of the co-organizers of Tuesday's protest. He's a member of the Peoria chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and he's lived in the Peoria area for 25 years.

"I'm hearing stories today that are absolutely heartbreaking," he said. "If we don't do anything about this, if we don't make it to where everybody has housing as a right, then what are we doing as a community? What are we doing as a city?"

Karrie Alms is the vice-president of the North Valley Neighbors neighborhood association. She brought petitions to Tuesday's protest and was urging Peorians to call on city leaders to make the Peoria Housing Authority part of the city's official landlord registration.

"She has a lease that says she can be where she is ... Why is she being made to move? It's deplorable," Alms said. "Our city is only as best as its most vulnerable person."

Taft Homes redevelopment

Taft Homes has been fraught with health and safety issues for years.

Soon after the end of the Korean War the Taft Homes 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).

In May 2009, the Peoria Journal Star reported officials planned to direct funds earmarked for repairs at Taft toward a redevelopment plan. Plans were made, and later unmade; in 2018, the Housing Authority quietly settled with an Ohio-based developer for more than $500,000 over a failed redevelopment plan, the Southern Illinoisan reported.

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.

Taft Homes Redevelopment Plan Keeps Residents On Site During Construction

Hooker-DeJong, Inc. via Peoria Housing Authority

Construction was supposed to begin April 2021, but was delayed to this summer.

Taft Homes Redevelopment Slated To Begin This Summer

Gardner said she does not trust the Housing Authority to safely house her family or other tenants while Taft is being demolished and rebuilt.

She cited a litany of unresolved issues she's dealt with since moving into unit 314 in October of 2019, including mice and cockroach infestations, a broken window, inadequate air conditioning, holes in drywall, extreme water damage, mold and more.

taft homes interior 314 floor corner.jpg
Hannah Alani
Direna Gardner has lived in apartment 314 at Taft Homes, 231 Hancock St., since Oct. 2019.

While interviewing Gardner inside unit 314 last week, a WCBU reporter witnessed these conditions first hand.

Gardner hopes to connect with other Housing Authority tenants by inviting them to join her Facebook group, Victims of PHA.

Are you a resident of Taft Homes? Share your story with WCBU.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.