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New home construction filings accelerate in Normal

Home construction site
Emily Bollinger
New homes continue to be built in Bloomington-Normal to meet rising demand.

A total of 102 newly built homes sold in Bloomington-Normal last year. That's $34 million in new property value created in the community to meet demand, according to figures from the Mid-Illinois Association of Realtors. And, it's more than twice the amount of new home construction in 2020.

Early signs are this year will be even better.

"Nearly every subdivision in Normal that has the ability to expand is currently expanding and growing," said City Manager Pam Reece.

She said those are largely existing subdivisions that have not been built out after they began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Several have been on hold for years, even dating back to the housing bubble collapse in 2008.

"What we're seeing now is all those subdivisions that had originally been annexed with a preliminary plan and the like, are now in the works for continuing on. We haven't really had much conversation with developers on annexing new ground. We do have some property that's within the corporate limits of Normal that potentially could be developed, but we haven't really had in-depth conversations about that with anyone," Reece told WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Last week, the council took action on The Vineyard, Trails at Sunset Lake, and Greystone Fields totaling about 70 units. Northbridge and the final phase of Pheasant Ridge in Normal also have received approvals in the last six months, said Reece.

"There are a couple of subdivisions that still could expand further. Wintergreen, for example, and maybe a few others. So we expect that come spring, we'll see more new housing construction happening," she said.

In the early 2000s, organized labor held a news conference and criticized construction practices at the then new subdivision of Savannah Green, saying that it was being done on the cheap and that the construction would not last. In recent years, town staff has noted the streets and alleys in Savannah Green have deteriorated sooner than predicted. Reece said the town has enough inspections staff to oversee new construction.

"We don't inspect every bit of the the work in a residential subdivision," she said. "When it comes to the public amenities, or public projects and the things that are going to be turned over to the municipality, like water and sewer and pavement, then we do generally have a staff member on site during construction because those capital items are going to be turned over to the municipality in the future.

"I can't explain what happened with Savannah Green and the quality of the pavement in Savannah Green. We hope to have a solution to that. And we've talked with council about allocating some of our American Rescue Plan dollars to the Savannah, green alleys and roadways."

The town staffed up its inspections department to deal with large amount of construction at Rivian, and that has helped the town manage the pace of residential construction as well, Reece said.

Homeownership incentives

The city manager said she's receptive to a Realtors association call to stimulate homeownership. In a letter, the Mid-Illinois Realtors Association recently called for Bloomington and Normal to use some of their pandemic relief money to boost affordable housing and homeownership.

The argument for use of public funds on private ownership is one of economic development. The association says each housing sale spins off about $70,000 in other economic activity, and when people own homes that stability tends to add to the economy in other ways.

Reece said she and Normal Mayor Chris Koos will meet with the association in March to start the dialogue. Reece said town council members will likely embrace the call as well.

"I think the answer to that is yes. The council has talked at the table about concerns regarding housing. We just have to define what it is we think will be most impactful," said Reece.

The Realtors association suggested pandemic relief money could fund options, including down-payment assistance in the form of grants or forgivable loans, construction of new homes, and fixing up vacant and blighted properties. Reece said the town does have some experience in that space.

"We have administered a down-payment assistance program and have worked with banks on that program. There certainly is value to that. We would be willing to be at the table and talk about whether that would be a useful tool. There might be some low-hanging fruit like that," said Reece, adding this will not be a quick conversation and there is a lot to understand before the town agrees to try to stimulate homeownership.

"We've got a lot of folks who want to be at the table to find solutions. That's a good thing. There is a lot of stakeholder groups that want to do our best to make sure our workforce has an adequate place to live," said Reece.

Realtors said Illinois has 270,000 fewer homes than it needs and using American Rescue Plan money could reduce that number.

Flock could come to Normal

In another matter, Reece said the Town of Normal may join Peoria in and other nearby cities in installing security cameras that can read vehicle license plate numbers. Bloomington council members are expected to vote on the issue Monday night.

"Something like the Flock system or a license plate recognition system — those all have value as a tool for law enforcement, but you need to make sure everybody is on the same page in terms of how that is used," said Reece.

Reece said the same privacy issues raised about the system for Bloomington Police are at the center of Normal's existing Smart Cities dialogue, adding when a firm proposal comes forward, there will be a public conversation about safeguards.

Eventually, the town will have the same public discussion Bloomington has had over police cameras that capture license plate information.

"Then once it gets into the system, there has to be an understanding of how the agency is going to use it and how is it stored and preserved and searched and shared, things like that," said Reece.

Reece said she's heard concerns about other things than license plates caught in photos, such as images of people. She said Flock's explanations of what is searchable have been adequate, but data privacy does not stop there.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.