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A three-part series airing on WGLT's Sound Ideas in September 2022, looking at how the tight housing market has impacted Bloomington-Normal residents.

'So tired of fighting:' Low-income and accessible housing remain in short supply in B-N

Some families wait years to get a housing voucher only to find out many landlords won't accept them.
Beck Harlan
Some families wait years to get a housing voucher only to find out many landlords won't accept them.

For some people seeking housing in the Twin Cities, the rental struggles that have emerged since Rivian came to town in 2021 are new — long waits to find an open place, and sticker shock from the rates.

For others, the situation is not new.

Absent in the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council's housing study published earlier this year is an analysis on the state of accessible housing in the area, or the availability of housing for people with low and extremely low incomes.

In fact, the most recent in-depth look at the situation was in 2017, when a group of municipal employees and service providers published the "Bloomington-Normal Regional Housing Study."

According to the introduction, its goal was to "identify housing needs for the diverse populations of Bloomington-Normal."

Five years ago, the study concluded that "for whom the gap between need and supply is the greatest is low-income families." For people with disabilities (which the study acknowledges is "incredibly diverse" in what it includes), the study concludes that, while "the need is not great compared to other housing needs, it is ongoing and the need, may at times, exceed supply."

"While there is not a quantifiable need for accessible housing for younger persons desiring to live independently, these individuals frequently report difficulty in finding suitable housing,"the study noted.

For both of these populations — the low-income and those seeking accessible places to live, which can overlap — the situation has not exactly eased, according to those that serve them. Wait lists for affordable housing remain long; accessible housing, limited.

"This is something we've heard for years. We've had the wait list, we've had the awful conditions, we've had people with disabilities, especially low-income people with disabilities thinking, 'What am I going to do?'" said Life Center for Independent Living (CIL) executive director Rickliee Benecke. "'I'm so tired of fighting.'"

A lack of affordable housing and accessible housing is an issue all across the United States, not just in Bloomington-Normal.

But because LIFE CIL's clients are local, the stories staffers know are local ones.

A competitive housing and rental market drove three clients of LIFE CIL disability advocate Conan Calhoun out of housing last winter, he said. They were in a house that the landlord decided to sell quickly, given market conditions.

"That got those individuals out, they had nowhere else to go, so they lived in a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend's storage shed in the backyard throughout the winter," he said.

BHA waiting list

Programs for federally-supported, low-income housing are often closed, with wait lists that can last years. The most commonly known of those programs is arguably Section 8, a rental assistance program aimed at helping "very low income families, the elderly and disabled" find housing in the private market.

Jeremey Hayes, executive director of the Bloomington Housing Authority (BHA), said the local wait list for Section 8 housing has been closed since 2014, although there is tentative opening set later this fall.

"At this point, the number on the waiting list has dwindled down to a point where we can open the list," Hayes said.

It's not necessarily a lower demand or a lower need for this kind of program that's reduced the size of the waiting list. There are a number of factors responsible, Hayes said.

Some people's addresses change, so the information BHA sends to them is returned in the mail. Other people's situations have changed, ranging from a household restructuring to having children move out.

"Frankly, some of them will have been deceased by that time frame," Hayes said. "That's part of what's leading us to this conclusion: It's not a good situation to have such long periods of time when the list isn't open."

Still yet, there are those who disappear, falling through cracks in the system when they cannot get help in the time that they need it. LIFE CIL's Calhoun remembered a client who sought the agency's help at age 67, looking for housing while staying in "tents and backyards in Livingston County."

"This individual, who had been working a majority of their life and had been putting money into the bucket, (was) just asking for resources and asking for help — and at the end of the day got nothing," Calhoun said. "And we don't even know where that consumer is, at this point in time."

To increase the availability of housing available for people who will use rental assistance to cover part of their rent, private landlords can make agreements with the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency to do so. But that's a voluntary option, so many don't.

Hayes noted that BHA is a local manager of a federally funded housing assistance program, meaning without "increased funding from Congress, that really puts a constraint on... the public housing section."

According to publicly published BHA planning document for 2022, one of the goals of the agency is to "proactively seek development partnerships to create new opportunities for affordable housing using tools such as project-based vouchers."

Those who do find something that is either affordable and accessible — but rarely both — may find the conditions of the housing are lacking, according to LIFE CIL advocates.

Benecke said local subsidized housing is "for the large part, not accessible, not safe — in many ways not safe — and... squalid."

"We are moving individuals into less-than-desirable units," added. "And yet a consumer is like, 'I'll take it.'"

These are the problems with existing affordable or accessible housing. The 2017 study from various providers in the Twin Cities noted the slow pace of newer constructed accessible housing is due to landlord or property manager worries regarding rent.

"New apartment complexes are supposed to have units that can be made accessible, but owners sometimes hesitate to make necessary changes because they fear it will make the unit more difficult to rent in the future,"the study reported.

And as some clients of LIFE CIL have learned, new is not a guarantee of anything.

Shannon Tarkowski, an independent living advocate at the agency, spoke of a client who was able to get an apartment on the second floor of a newer building. The client, paralyzed from the waist down, relied on the elevator to get out of the building.

"The elevator is broken down every other week," she said. "First person to live in the unit — you'd think the elevator would work in the first year. He said, 'I'm a prisoner in my apartment.'"

More housing, especially that which is affordable and/or accessible, would do a lot to help people in need across the Twin Cities.

To get that housing, however, advocates said a priority shift and an attitude shift are necessary first.

"I think that's the biggest problem — the attitudes. People don't understand all of this," Benecke said. "So they think, 'Well, people with that low of income or who have a disability, and they're not working — they just did it to themselves.' It's like they're worth less."

Added Calhoun: "We've got to figure out what we're doing with our housing here. We've got the capacity to do, just the community and the economic development side are lacking."

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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