Inside public housing where cockroaches drop from the wall and kids are getting sick
Midday on July 4, Bria Embrey held her 7-month-old son in her arms as she talked to a police officer patrolling the public housing complex where she lives. In the middle of the conversation, the baby’s breathing became labored. With each desperate gasp, Embrey could see the outline of his rib cage.
The police officer called for help, and the baby was taken by ambulance to nearby OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. He spent five days in the intensive care unit as doctors worked their way toward a diagnosis of asthma.
A doctor wanted to know if Embrey had smoked in front of her children. No, she assured him. Then Embrey mentioned the mold and roaches inside her public housing apartment at Taft Homes, which is owned and managed by the Peoria Housing Authority.
When the hospital discharged the child, the doctor instructed Embrey to call Peoria’s code enforcement office and report the conditions in her apartment.
Though Embrey did as instructed, these problems have been documented for years — and little has changed.
Taft Homes has failed three of its five most recent inspections by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Peoria Housing Authority has delayed major repairs at the property even as it has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over more than a decade to consultants and developers for plans that have yet to materialize, records and interviews reveal.
Peoria’s case is extreme. But in many ways, the Taft Homes exemplifies the plight of publicly subsidized housing throughout Illinois. From Chicago to Peoria to Carbondale, some apartments for the state’s lowest-income families are deteriorating at a time when the need for them is rising.
For its part, HUD rarely intervenes in an aggressive way, despite its congressional mandate to oversee local landlords that provide subsidized housing and to enforce fair housing laws. “They don’t care because their kids don’t have to live here,” Embrey said, echoing the concerns of many residents interviewed for this story. “They don’t see the urgency.”
Local housing authorities face steep challenges. There is limited funding to renovate the buildings or to tear them down and start over.
Congress has repeatedly cut funding to housing authorities, and hasn’t dedicated money for a rebuilding program for decades. Today, most housing authorities looking to extensively renovate or replace their aging buildings must seek out federal low-income housing tax credits and other smaller pools of government funds and private bank loans, typically in partnership with a nonprofit or for-profit developer. These elaborate deals are fraught with challenges, and they routinely fall apart or fall far short of promises, according to an analysis by The Southern Illinoisan.
Last year, The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica documented the fallout of the public housing crisis in Cairo, at the state’s southernmost tip, which resulted in the relocation of hundreds of residents from the small town. The news organizations also reported on the failures of HUD to improve conditions in East St. Louis after a federal takeover that spanned more than three decades.
Our new analysis shows that problems are widespread across the state of Illinois.
Illinois’ HUD inspection failure rate is among the worst in the nation for the two types of properties that the department funds and inspects: apartments owned by public housing authorities and complexes run by for-profit or nonprofit owners under contract with HUD to house low-income people. (Look up properties in your area using ProPublica’s newly updated HUD Inspect tool.)
The consequences go well beyond a chronic lack of affordable housing. Dr. Douglas Carlson, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at SIU Medicine in Springfield, said that one of the most common contributing factors to respiratory problems in children is poor housing conditions.
“We certainly see increased rates of asthma in kids living in houses that are not fully maintained or deteriorating in downstate Illinois,” he said. “And it looks like the most common cause is mold.”
The crisis touches every region of the state. But there are few places where it’s as apparent as in Peoria, a company town in north-central Illinois long known as Caterpillar Inc.’s home base.
Taft Homes, where Embrey lives, is just a few blocks from Caterpillar’s sprawling downtown campus and a welcome center that stands as a shrine to the earthmoving company. It’s also about a half-mile from where Caterpillar bought numerous buildings in 2012 and 2013 to expand its global headquarters.
As city officials aggressively courted Caterpillar, Taft Homes residents were promised that their decaying homes would finally be torn down and replaced. But over the next decade, they would be let down repeatedly.
In May 2009, the Peoria Journal Star reported that housing officials planned to hold off on spending a portion of $4.3 million in federal funds earmarked for repairs at Taft and instead direct the money into a redevelopment plan. “We don’t want to spend funds on siding and doors on a development that may not be there in a few years,” the then-director told the paper.
In 2011, a consultant issued a report on the housing authority’s behalf, suggesting that rebuilding Taft Homes as a mixed-income community at its current location near downtown represented a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reimagine the apartment complex and neighborhood.
Instead, two years later, housing authority officials began exploring the possibility of leveling Taft Homes and leasing or selling the land to support the development of new, smaller apartment complexes throughout the city, with an aim, they said, of better integrating affordable housing into established neighborhoods. Meanwhile, others were eyeing the riverfront property where Taft sits for potential development.
As the housing authority held community meetings in 2014 to gather feedback on the relocation plan, Peoria homeowners by the hundreds, most of them white, packed meetings and voiced strong opposition. Over the months and years that followed, several different plans were created and ultimately abandoned.
Now, more than a decade later, families continue to live in unsafe conditions at Taft Homes. In 2018, the housing authority quietly settled with an Ohio-based developer for more than $500,000 over its dashed redevelopment plan, audit records show. With HUD’s blessing, the company was paid from federal funds awarded to the housing authority to help the city build replacement housing.
As late as September of this year, a scaled back plan to transfer subsidies from a few dozen units at Taft Homes to two small apartment complexes about a mile away in the East Bluff hit another snag. In a letter, HUD accused the housing authority of failing to offer the new units to residents who still live at Taft Homes.
While the Taft Homes remain standing, Caterpillar’s top executives have left town. In 2017, the company stunned the community when executives announced that, after some 90 years, it would move its headquarters from Peoria to a suburb north of Chicago.
This July, the housing authority announced that a new redevelopment plan is in the works for Taft. More recently, the housing authority informed tenants that it is aiming to begin the rebuilding process by this time next year. The apartments will be rebuilt in the same neighborhood, said Jackie L. Newman, who has been the housing authority’s chief executive since April 2018. “There were different circumstances going on within the community that are not going on now,” she said, citing Caterpillar’s decision to move its headquarters.
“What we do know is we need to redevelop Taft,” said Newman, who holds her position on contract in addition to her full-time job running the Springfield Housing Authority, an hour to the south.
Taft Homes isn’t the only public housing property in Peoria in need of attention. About a mile across town, mold is growing in the upstairs bathroom, hallway and bedrooms of Shante Harden’s apartment unit at Harrison Homes South. Paint is bubbling up and peeling from her 5-year-old daughter’s bedroom wall near her pink princess play table; the electrical outlets don’t work in her son’s room. And when their bathtub leaks or their toilet overflows, it rains into the kitchen below.
Harden hasn’t taken her complaints to the city. Before moving into her unit three years ago, she and her two children were living in a homeless shelter. “I think that’s why I haven’t been on them about the conditions,” she said. “I can’t go back to that.”
Like Taft Homes, this property also failed its most recent HUD inspection this February, scoring 45 out of 100 points. HUD has given the housing authority itself lousy reviews for a decade, labeling it as substandard or troubled every year since 2011, records show. Five of the housing authority’s nine properties failed their most recent HUD inspections, according to the most current available data from HUD.
Still, the federal oversight agency hasn’t taken any strong action against the authority, such as appointing a monitor to oversee improvements or putting it in receivership.
“HUD has and will continue to offer assistance to the PHA [Peoria Housing Authority], however, as we’ve explained on numerous occasions, the board and mayor provide immediate direction,” HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in response to questions. (Brown left the agency earlier this month).
Illinois’ small and midsized cities face similar difficulties — and for many of the same reasons as in Peoria. Housing officials often have trouble securing financing to replace old units. Homeowners in stable neighborhoods sometimes fight plans to construct affordable housing near them, despite studies indicating that children from low-income families tend to earn higher incomes as adults when they grow up in more economically stable neighborhoods. At the local level, some of Illinois’ most explosive political fights have revolved around affordable housing.
Around 2012, housing officials in Rockford, a town of about 147,000 people near the Wisconsin border, began working on a plan to address poor conditions at Fairgrounds Valley, a 210-unit public apartment complex that is decades old.
The housing authority’s plan called for moving some residents from the housing complex on the west side of Rock River into a newly constructed apartment community on the east side. But before these residents could cross the river — long a de facto dividing line between economically struggling, predominantly minority neighborhoods and more stable, majority white neighborhoods — they had to overcome an epic political battle.
City council members refused to sign off on necessary zoning changes, prompting a lawsuit from the development company. Around the same time, HUD filed a fair housing complaint against the city, and the council reversed its previous opposition. The developer dropped its lawsuit. Then, east side homeowners who wanted to stop the project sued the city. A judge dismissed the homeowners’ lawsuit, and, with the issue settled, the development could finally move forward.
It was nearly five years after planning began that Fairgrounds residents began relocating. The roughly 150 households that remain at the apartment complex continue to wait for the promise of improved conditions. The plan to address future phases of the redevelopment has been delayed by challenges accessing financing and meeting specific HUD requirements, Rockford housing officials said.
Housing officials say it’s not only a matter of needing more funding to rehabilitate old buildings. They also need the support of local elected leaders to better integrate affordable housing options into middle-class neighborhoods. Yet political capital can prove as elusive as financing.
Tens of thousands of people across the state are lingering on waiting lists for federal assistance to reduce their rent burden, according to a survey of the state’s roughly 100 housing authorities by The Southern Illinoisan. Sometimes, they wait a decade or more.
But those waits vary greatly by location, even within a single county. For instance, in Illinois’ Metro East area bordering St. Louis, the St. Clair County Housing Authority reported wait times of a month or less for public housing apartment complexes in the high poverty, majority-minority small cities that border East St. Louis. Comparatively, the wait time for public housing about 10 miles away in O’Fallon, Millstadt and Dupo — majority white communities with much stronger economies, better infrastructure and more neighborhood amenities — can stretch for more than three years.
Several Illinois housing authority directors who oversee public housing in rural areas, including Pope and Alexander counties at the state’s southern border, reported no wait times and trouble filling vacancies in some cases. Meanwhile, there is little or no public housing in many of the wealthy suburban communities that ring Chicago, while tens of thousands of people linger on waitlists for various subsidized housing programs in Cook and the collar counties.
The affordable housing crisis is particularly acute for black families. African American children and their families are far more likely to live in housing that repeatedly fails HUD inspections. Black people are also eight times more likely to experience homelessness in Illinois than white people, according to an analysis of HUD homelessness data by Housing Action Illinois, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Jacqueline Abbott, who lives in a five-story apartment complex in west Carbondale, said that she would move into a private-market rental if there was a decent one she could afford on her salary working at Dollar General. In public housing, her rent is capped at 30% of her income. But poor conditions in her building have caused her financial hardship. This summer, she said, she was changing the sheets on her bed and noticed the mattress was covered in a black substance that she believes was mold. Since then, she’s been sleeping on her couch while trying to save for a new mattress.
“It’s not right, it’s not fair,” she said. In the 16 years she’s lived in her apartment, Abbott said building conditions have slowly deteriorated. She has asthma and said that poor air circulation in the building aggravates her breathing condition. Two other women at the complex also said they’ve noticed problems there, including worn carpet, mold, bedbugs and broken appliances.
Four hours north in Quincy, Melanie Howe said conditions got so bad at the 200-unit Indian Hills public housing complex where she lived for a decade that she moved her family out last year.
Her two children repeatedly missed school because they were sick so often, she said. This time last year, she spent days watching an air bubble in the paint of her daughter’s bedroom wall grow larger until she decided one day to pop it with a broom handle. “Roaches fell out of the wall,” she said. “There were so many of them. It was horrid.”
In addition to her full-time job at a call center, she took on two additional part-time jobs to afford market-rate rent. “My kids were sick constantly when they lived there,” she said. “Since we have moved here, they haven’t been getting sick as often.”