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Q&A: Interim Peoria Housing Authority Director Jackie Newman Answers Questions On Taft Redevelopment

PHA board 2.jpg
Hannah Alani
Jackie Newman, far right, during a Peoria Housing Authority board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.

The Peoria Housing Authority is inching closer to breaking ground on the long-awaited redevelopment of Taft Homes.

Construction must be done in phases and most Taft residents have been relocated to the front end of the complex to live in temporary accommodations.

The Gardner family of seven, however, was asked to live in two combined units at the back end of the complex.

Dozens of community members rallied to support the family after mother Direna Gardner protested conditions inside the combined units. She was initially asked to relocate Aug. 23, but refused after finding maggots inside a toilet, water damage, uncapped outlets and other issues.

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

Following WCBU's coverage, the Housing Authority agreed to correct issues related to water damage and perform a mold test before asking the Gardner family to move.

The family was given a new move date of 9 a.m. Tuesday, however, no one showed up, Gardner said. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Gardners did not know if or when their temporary units will be ready.

Direna Gardner said a staffer from PHA had tried contacting her but Gardner missed her calls because she was at work.

In an email Wednesday, the Housing Authority's deputy director Melissa Huffstedtler said repair work was still taking place.

"The PHA has been working to complete the additional repairs to the unit in question," she said. "While tentative dates may be provided, no moves will be scheduled until the work is complete."

Gardner's public housing lease ends Sept. 30. As a part of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, Taft tenants must sign new leases starting Oct. 1.

During a Housing Authority board meeting last week, an activist called on PHA's director Jackie Newman and board chairman Carl Cannon to resign over the matter.

Peoria Housing Authority Board Responds To Taft Homes Concerns During Board Meeting


Newman is the director of the Springfield Housing Authority. She's been the acting director of the Peoria Housing Authority since 2018.

In an interview with WCBU's Hannah Alani after last week's board meeting, Newman responded to community concerns.

Jackie Newman: There is a reason that we are demolishing and doing new construction. And I can't say that enough. The backlog of capital needs there is great. Even during this time since I got here April 2 of 2018, we have invested about $680,000 at Taft, just to try to bring some of the units up.

Hannah Alani: What are your thoughts on some of the concerns at Taft Holmes? And how do you think the PHA board is handling it?

Jackie Newman: I went out to the site — I was out that particular week with a medical situation, but came back that Monday — and went to the side after I saw the stories, and actually got a chance to meet Mrs. Gardner, her sister and her husband, and we walked through the unit room by room together to talk about some of the concerns. And so we are working with the family to help them transition.

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.

Hannah Alani: Residents will be living in temporary housing for quite some time ... What's the best way for people like Direna, if they run into issues, if they have problems, what's the best way for them to address those concerns and get things fixed?

Jackie Newman: The Department of Housing and Urban Development still requires that units pass housing quality standards. So we will continue to do what we should be doing, and are doing, and that's making sure that our units pass HUD's HQS standards. So for those units that were in severe state of repair, those are the units that remained vacant, because there just isn't enough federal dollars to bring them up to what they needed to be. So those units remained vacant.

... We're trying to tackle it bit by bit, bite size by bite size ... Sometimes the outside doesn't see the workings of what's happening behind the scenes. We are working diligently to try to bring our units up to par. I've been at this for 37 years, so I'm not new to the affordable housing arena. You know, maybe contrary to popular belief, I do care. And I do want what's best for the families. And so we wouldn't work so hard if we didn't want what was best for the families.

Hannah Alani: We're looking pretty close [to breaking ground], right? Like, weeks? Within the next month?

Jackie Newman: What I can say is that we're very close, we're very close. And we will certainly publicize it as as great as we can. And the other thing that I will say is that these aren't new conversations about relocation we wish we didn't have to disrupt our family's lives and that they could just remain in a spot until we demolished but because we're trying to do it in phases, and certainly have the least amount of disruption to our families as we can humanly possibly do.

... We don't walk on water. We're doing our best in some very unique circumstances in which we find ourselves.

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Peoria Housing Authority
An updated rendering for the new Taft Homes provided to WCBU in September of 2021.

Hannah Alani: Is there anything else I didn't ask you about, since you kind of have the floor here, to speak to our listeners in Peoria? Anything that's top of mind, that you really wish people kind of understood about the situation?

Jackie Newman: HUD sent me here to help the Peoria Housing Authority. And so I'm here at the request of HUD, and the board, to help move things along. And in two and a half years, we have forged a relationship and leveraged $43 million on a project that has been on the burner for 12 years. And so that means we've rolled up our sleeves. And we've done a lot of grant writing. And we've done a lot of advocating for leveraging of funds.

... What we want to do is try to do our best to do better. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Do we err? Absolutely, we're human. Are we trying to work to be better? Unequivocally. ... The question was asked, "How do I manage two housing authorities?" What I can say is, 'With very little sleep." If you knew who I was, for real, then you would understand the stewardship that is on my life, for caring for people. We do what we do because of our care for humankind, for mankind, and to make the world a better place. If you have the ability to do something, then I want to be part of the solution, and not just part of identifying what the problems are.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and time.

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Peoria Housing Authority
An updated rendering of the new Taft Homes provided to WCBU in September of 2021.

In a Peoria Journal-Star op-ed that ran following WCBU's coverage of the Gardner family's situation, 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

Gardner is in the process of formally re-starting the Taft Homes Resident Council, which dissolved in 2014. She asked interested residents to message her on Facebook or call or text her at 309-222-7329.
Gardner also 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.

direna family.jpg
Hannah Alani
The Gardner family of seven outside the Peoria Housing Authority headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.
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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.