Peoria Housing Authority Board Responds To Taft Homes Concerns During Board Meeting
After weeks of speaking up on behalf of herself and fellow Taft Homes residents, Direna Gardner was able to address the Peoria Housing Authority board directly on Tuesday.
Gardner told the board she didn’t want her five elementary school-aged children to live in unsafe housing.
She asked if results from a mold test would come in before her expected Sept. 14 move date, and whether additional concerns would be addressed.
After the meeting, Gardner told WCBU it felt good to have a voice.
“I'm just glad that I was able to come here and stand up here before them and ask them the questions," she said. "I just really need answers."
Gardner’s comments followed about 30 minutes of public comment from impassioned housing rights activists, including both the current and former presidents of the Peoria chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Carl Cannon, chair of the Peoria Housing Authority board, told activists and Gardner that he was listening and taking notes during their comments.
“We hear you,” he said. “Just understand, we hear you. We appreciate you advocating for our residents.”
The Peoria Housing Authority is 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.
Final financing is wrapping up. Board members voted Tuesday to approve a total of $13 million in tax credits for work on the project.
Demolition will begin as soon as the ink is dry on financing documents, interim Peoria Housing Authority director Jackie Newman told WCBU after Tuesday’s board meeting.
“We're right on the cusp, I mean we are just weeks away,” she said. “And we are looking forward with excitement.”
Demolition of the existing Taft Homes 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.
Transitioning residents from old units to temporary ones hasn’t been a smooth process.
Gardner was initially told the Housing Authority could not accommodate her family at the front end of the complex during upcoming on-site construction.
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.
She was asked to move out Aug. 23, even though her lease for her current unit is active through the end of his month.
When Gardner toured the temporary units she saw an exposed gas pipe, water-damaged cabinets and uncovered outlets. Dozens of maggots crawled out of a toilet bowl.
Gardner shared her story with WCBU and showed a reporter the conditions inside her current apartment and the units where she was expected to live.
Promises made for future
Following the WCBU news report and a protest outside Taft Homes, Cannon acknowledged substandard conditions at Taft.
In a Sunday Peoria Journal-Star op-ed he co-penned with Peoria NAACP president Marvin Hightower, Cannon wrote the Housing Authority would take the following steps:
- Immediately inspect all units that will house tenants during reconstruction
- Create a sub-committee of the board focused on addressing Taft tenant concerns as they arise
- Train all PHA board members and staff in customer service
“It is not easy for a family to be displaced, even if to allow for the construction of a better place to call home,” Cannon wrote. “We need to ensure that during this trying time for our Taft families, every family is treated with the level of professionalism and respect they deserve.”
He reiterated these promises during Tuesday’s board meeting.
Kristen Meierkord, president of the Peoria chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she doesn’t trust Cannon to keep his promises. She pointed to the ongoing confusion around the issue of gate locks at Taft Homes.
Last year, a 61-year-old resident of Taft Homes died when paramedics couldn’t get to her home fast enough due to locked gates.
The local ACLU “went after” the Housing Authority, Meierkord said, and following the incident, the chairman promised to unlock Taft’s gates.
The promise was initially kept, however, around the July 4 holiday this year, the locks were back, Meierkord said.
The locks disappeared, but then reappeared the day Taft residents, the ACLU and local activists protested housing conditions last week.
As of Monday, the locks were still in place, Meierkord said.
“His promises have not held true in the past,” she said.
On Tuesday, a WCBU reporter asked Cannon to comment on why the locks were still in place. He said he did not know the answer and referred the reporter to Taft’s chief of security, who was at the meeting.
WCBU asked the security staffer about the locks, but he said he, too, did not know why they were there.
The federal authority that oversees local housing authorities – the Department of Housing and Urban Development – has issued multiple “failing” inspections to Taft Homes in recent years.
WCBU interviewed a 70-year-old woman who grew up in Taft Homes and still lives there today.
The woman agreed to share her story on the condition of anonymity, as she fears retaliation from the Housing Authority.
Standing inside her apartment, the woman recalled her the death of her neighbor, whom residents knew as “Miss Hazel.”
She looked out her window at the black iron gate standing between her front door and the road. The woman told WCBU she has a heart condition.
“I don’t want to end up like Miss Hazel,” she said.
'Do our best to do better'
Newman has been the longtime director of the Springfield Housing Authority. She was asked by HUD to step in and oversee Peoria’s authority.
In the nearly three years Newman has led as interim director, the Peoria Housing Authority has finally made headway on the redevelopment of Taft, Newman said.
Everyone can agree Taft Homes needs to be demolished, she said, adding that funds for repairs to existing housing are scarce.
“The backlog of capital needs there is great,” she said “Even during this time since I got here April 2 of 2018 we have invested $680,000 at Taft just to try to bring some of the units up. … There just isn’t enough federal dollars to bring [vacant] units up to where they need to be.”
She said she hears the frustration of Taft residents and worked hard to address Gardner's concerns once she became aware of the situation. She walked the new units with Gardner and plans to personally review the results of Gardner's mold test.
“What we want to do is try to do our best to do better," she said. "Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Do we err? Absolutely, we’re human. … Are we trying to work to be better? Unequivocally.”
During the meeting a member of the public asked how Newman can run two housing authorities at once. The same commenter called on Newman to resign.
"The question was asked, ‘How do I manage two housing authorities?’ what I can say is, ‘With very little sleep.'" Newman said after the meeting. "If you knew who I was, for real, then you would understand the stewardship that is on my life for caring for people."
Regina Morgan is a former resident of Peoria Public Housing and an advocate for people living in low-income housing today. She attended Tuesday’s meeting to support Gardner and other residents.
Moving forward, she encouraged residents of Taft Homes to form an active resident council.
Such a council existed years ago and guided the Housing Authority board on decisions regarding Taft. The council dissolved in 2014 after members moved out of public housing.
“Any assembly of organizations is a good thing,” she said. “Just for an example, Black Lives Matter was not one lady on a corner with a bull horn saying, ‘Black Lives Matter!’ … It’s the same thing here. You have to form a resident organization. They need to get fired up.”
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.