Health concerns bring retirement to Piedmont Housing's Keith Word
by Eddie Burkhalter
Feb 09, 2013 | 3696 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PIEDMONT — From a child living in public housing, to becoming the director of Piedmont Housing Authority, Keith Word’s journey has been a remarkable one.

After 23 years with the housing authority, Word retired Jan. 31. He had been on medical leave since July 2011.

The son of a police officer, Word’s family lived in public housing in Jacksonville for several years during his childhood. Word, 56, recalled being at home in public housing on Marbut Drive in Jacksonville when he learned that President Kennedy had been killed.

His family later moved to Piedmont, where his father worked on the city’s Police Department for several years.

Word began his career with the housing authority in 1990, and was promoted to director one year later.

Graduation photos covering one wall of his home office offer a glimpse of Word’s dedication to the young people who have lived in Piedmont’s public housing. They keep sending him photos, he said, and each time one graduates from high school or college, he gives them $25 and attends the ceremony.

Other walls are covered with photographs of Word and the people he’s met in his time with the Housing Authority and during his previous years as state president of the Jaycees. From Charles Barkley to Ronald Reagan, Word pointed to the photographs proudly and recalled each visit.

Changing attitudes about public housing was something Word said he made his mission early on. During his career, the Housing Authority’s 211 units — spread across eight locations throughout the city — have been completely remodeled, with new central air-conditioning units, roofs and landscaping.

These are people’s homes, Word said, and not what some still call “projects.”

“What I wanted the public to understand is, these are fine people that live in public housing,” Word said. “It’s there for elderly. It’s there for young couples that just got married. It’s there for a single mom with four kids ... I think we’ve been successful in educating people that they’re residents, not tenants.”

Word said one elderly couple moved into public housing when their Piedmont home was destroyed by the Palm Sunday tornado in 1994. They both lived in their new home until their deaths, Word said.

But Piedmont’s public housing was not always looked upon favorably by many. Piedmont police Chief Steven Tidwell wrote in an email to The Star that in the 1990s the city’s public housing was a prime location for drugs and violent crime.

Tidwell credits Word for what he said has been a dramatic decrease in crime in Piedmont’s public housing.

“Over the years Mr. Word worked very closely with the police department and through enforcement efforts by police and strict applicant screening and the eviction of problem tenants by Word, crime rates in public housing decreased dramatically,” Tidwell wrote.

Regular sweeps of public housing units by Piedmont police stopped in 2005, Word said, because of the reduced need for them.

Word said that when he began there was little cooperation between the Housing Authority, local law enforcement and the city government.

In those first few years, Word said, he began working to build critical partnerships.

“I went to the city and the schools, and we signed partnership agreements,” Word said. “We started sharing things.”

It took about five years to build those relationships, Word said, but once the bonds were made, things at the authority began to change for the better.

After numerous calls to the schools to help deal with truancy problems and children from public housing who had not been picked up by parents after school, Word in 2001 started an Honor Roll program for students living in public housing.

Calling them his “A Team”, Word would recognize children who made the Honor Roll with awards and trips to a local restaurant.

In 2002, only one student made the Honor Roll at each grading period throughout the school year. In 2009, 16 kids did so, and in 2011 the number rose to 19. In 2012, there were 44 kids from public housing on one particular Honor Roll.

“More and more, I was building relationships with not only my residents, but with their kids,” Word said.

Beginning in 1956 with just one set of homes, Piedmont Housing Authority continued to build additional units throughout the ensuing decades.

In August of 2009, the Housing Authority moved into its new 5,700-square-foot administrative offices that Word and his staff paid for by saving for many years, thereby constructing the building without a loan.

Sheila Hill, the new director, has been with the Piedmont Housing Authority for 21 years.

Word said because of health problems in July 2012 he asked the Housing Authority board to appoint Hill, then deputy director, as acting director. She became executive director on Feb. 1, and Word said the Housing Authority is in the very best of hands.

With two grandchildren and a new tractor, Word said there is plenty to keep him busy, but he admitted it’s been hard to let go of work when it was such a big part of his life.

“I’m to the point now where I’ve finally settled down,” Word said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.
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