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Landlords want shared risk to rent to risky tenants in Bloomington-Normal

For lease
Emily Bollinger
Matt Burgess with Home Sweet Home Ministries said he’s already been in talks with a property management company with roughly 1,000 apartments about working on master leases that would include a rent guarantee from HSHM.

McLean County social service leaders say they aren’t yet seeing the impact of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic eviction moratorium – but they’ve been preparing.

During a McLean County League of Women Voters forum about homelessness Tuesday night, Matt Burgess, chief executive officer of Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM), said he’s already been in talks with a property management company with roughly 1,000 apartments about working on master leases that would include a rent guarantee from HSHM.

It would be an expansion of the types of arrangements the privately-funded organization has made as part of its Rapid Rehousing program, now in its eighth year. Burgess says the company he didn’t name has taken a conservative approach to evictions, with only about a dozen active eviction efforts underway.

Rapid rehousing attempts to get people who have been thrown into homelessness case management, to help them quickly transition out of shelters into more stable housing. It includes a variety of supports such as assistance finding job security, affordable housing, planning a budget, and maintaining an apartment.

Typically the programs provide money for security deposits, and first and last month rents, but Burgess said his organization has been paying up to six months’ rent to support people during the pandemic. A new master lease option is another way of sharing risk with landlords who he admits are not anxious right now to gamble on high-risk tenants who have a bad rental payment history or other factors, such as being a registered sex offender or newly released from prison.

“We’re exploring that (master leases) out of necessity,” Burgess said.

He said the current housing market, with high demand for apartments from new arrivals working at Rivian and soon-to-be new hires at the Ferrero candy plant, there’s no incentive to take on a renter with a questionable rental history. Sharing the risk is the only way to get people out of shelters and into reliable housing, according to Burgess.

“So, what I’m hoping to do is maybe I’ll negotiate with a property manager and say, ‘Look, I want to get four people through our Rapid Rehousing program into your apartments at all times. I’m going to offer a guarantee by being the actual entity leasing two of those units and I want you to roll the dice and let us use two other of your units on an experimental basis, giving people who may not otherwise look attractive an opportunity,’” Burgess said.

PATH (Proving Access To Help) serves as the lead agency for the local homeless continuum of care which provides federal funding to address homelessness. PATH recently launched a Rapid Rehousing program using money from the State of Illinois Emergency Services Grant (ESG) Program under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

PATH’s Kaitlyn Johns works as a lead housing case manager for the Rapid Rehousing program. Johns said the biggest challenge is finding available affordable housing.

“There is just not a lot out there, and the ones that are available are going very quickly. Also, landlords are not really working with us too much yet and then if our clients have bad credit, criminal history or they’re on the sex offender registry – those are all barriers.”

She adds, “Income, that’s a big barrier.”

PATH is also revising its assessment for those who need transitional or permanent housing to be more inclusive of needs such people who identify as LGBTQ and who have been kicked out of their home or apartment, who’ve been denied housing, or who have had difficulty finding a job.

Burgess and others on the panel agreed a majority of those who are homeless in McLean County are not on the street. Rather they are hidden, with an estimated 87% living in shelters, and they need a more permanent solution.

“Shelter doesn’t solve homelessness,” Burgess said.

For example, Burgess points out 17 children are currently housed at Home Sweet Home Ministries’ shelter. They are mostly elementary students, but some are babies and toddlers. He stressed they need a better, more permanent option so they can grow, learn, and thrive.

Regarding shelter, PATH currently has run out of money to support hotel rooms that can be provided to people for a night or two in case of emergency or extremely cold weather. Last winter, Johns said the community stepped up when funds ran out because of so many successive days of brutally cold weather, coupled with reduced capacity at shelters due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s something we never really saw before,” Johns said.

The Salvation Army in Bloomington, which operates a 58-bed shelter in Bloomington, is considered a “low barrier” emergency shelter that, according to Social Services Director JoAnn Callahan, “meets people where they are.” The nonprofit organization has case managers that meet with homeless clients weekly, offering employment and resume assistance, bus and transportation vouchers, and other support needed to lift residents out of the congregate living shelter where beds are arranged by gender with a few rooms for families.

The Salvation Army does have a partnership with the Veterans Administration and operates two transitional housing programs for them. But there are challenges. Callahan points out 40% of their clients have mental health concerns.

The Bloomington Housing Authority (BHA) provides affordable housing through 600 public housing units and 675 tenant-based Section 9 housing vouchers. BHA executive director Jeremy Hayes said there are hundreds on a waiting list, but he said many families are on waiting lists in multiple communities. He emphasizes extremely low-income people are willing to move thousands of miles if it means landing in secure housing.

So how can more affordable housing be created? Hayes said there are complicated federal, state and city-based tax incentive programs that can be combined to create a layered deal to attract developers such as what happened with a project that converted the former Bloomington High School building for senior housing. But Hayes said because there is a lot of bureaucracy, it takes political will, community pressure, and the right developers and lenders willing to take the risk. Translation: It’s not easy.

Burgess insists local governments need to take the lead on coming up with more permanent affordable housing solutions, particularly at a time when demand is driving up rental prices.

“The reality is that as a service provider like those of us on the panel, we are usually so busy with managing our programs that pursuit of those types of partnerships exceeds our bandwidth, even when we are interested in them,” he said. “So one way local governments can help is to take lead roles in facilitating this kind of process/partnership. Many of us are willing to partner in these initiatives, but just can't serve as the lead entity to pull them off.”

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