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Housing navigator is the tip of housing iceberg problem in B-N

Normal City Manager Pam Reece
Charlie Schlenker
Normal City Manager Pam Reece.

Eight months ago, a housing coalition in Bloomington-Normal asked for help, and a share of Town of Normal and City of Bloomington pandemic relief money to support as people go through rental assistance, eviction avoidance, and affordable housing programs.

The Normal Town Council has now approved a two-year demonstration project for a nonprofit-based housing "navigator" to do just that. But the lack of housing and affordable housing is a much broader issue than one advocate can solve.

Normal City Manager Pam Reece said it truly is a complex issue.

The value of the position, she said, is to assist individuals that are at risk of unstable housing situations, maybe at risk of eviction, and helping them navigate the system for assistance, to coordinate in partnership with landlords, and to help secure more stable housing.

The McLean County Regional Planning Commission has a database of income-qualified housing units in McLean County, for low-income and very low-income people. There were 1,416 such units in 21 active properties last year. That’s down several hundred units since 2019.

The commission also did interviews with several owners, who said they planned to drop out of the tax credit program for low-income housing providers once their contracts end because they can do better financially by renting at market rate.

And rents have risen substantially. The commission cited data showing a minimum wage worker in Bloomington Normal must work 47 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom market-rate apartment and 58 hours per week for a two-bedroom unit. Nearly 44% of renters are paying more than 30% of their income, a measure of affordability.

The report stated the housing supply shortage is impeding economic growth.

Reece said municipalities are involved in addressing the housing shortage at several levels.

“Our comprehensive plan has an entire section about housing. And, we're focusing on that all the time to address housing needs,” Reece said on WGLT's Sound Ideas. “This year, we've done a pretty good job of moving forward in infill development, and developing not just single-family residential, but multifamily housing and approving that."

Reece acknowledged those have been market-rate projects. The town has supported not-for-profit group development of affordable housing in the past. She said once the council approves the Uptown South master plan, perhaps in July, the town could move forward with a potential Laborers Home Development Corporation initiative to create some affordable housing south of the train tracks.

“Another component of affordable housing is transit. We always talk about transit-oriented development. Connect Transit has done a lot to expand their level of services. They would also need to be at the table. All these factors come into play, not just the developer, but how can people get to and from their home and to work and to their services,” said Reece.

Some communities do more than partner with organizations for affordable housing developments. To achieve a broad spectrum of housing advocacy, they sometimes require projects that receive government incentives, such as tax credits, to include some affordable units within projects that create market-rate units.

“I think there's absolutely political will to discuss these things, inclusive development, all different rates of affordability, market rate, affordable housing, those have been proven to be successful in certain communities under certain situations. And I do think those will be part of the conversation moving forward in terms of what can a developer do, and how we can make it possible,” said Reece.

Gun violence

Bloomington City Council member of Mollie Ward has recommended a gun violence commission to have a broad discussion of that problem. Some council members in Bloomington do not favor the idea, saying other groups in the community already are working on the issue.

Reece said the Town of Normal has not discussed that idea at the staff level, but is willing to be at the table if such a group does develop.

“When there are coalitions and commissions, they're very broad in terms of stakeholders, you know, the faith-based community, not only local government, but social service providers and the like. I think there are probably good examples of what some communities may be doing to address similar concerns,” said Reece.

Project updates

Reece said the town planned to put out bids this month for construction of the Uptown Underpass project. That is behind schedule because a lot of the partners need to review final construction documents. Reece said she expects the town to go out for bid in a couple months on the project.

Rebuilding West College Avenue also is behind schedule. Recent approval of a new site plan to add turn lanes and traffic signals at College Avenue and Rivian Motorway requires the involvement of both the Illinois Department of Transportation and Rivian to approve changes.

Reece now expects that project to go out for bid early next year and construction to finish in 2025. The West College Avenue project goes from White Oak Road to Rivian Motorway.

She said there has been no movement on a development agreement for the Trail West and East projects on Uptown Circle.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect a Bloomington Normal minimum wage worker must work 47 hours per week to afford an average one-bedroom apartment and 58 hours for a two-bedroom unit. The story previously stated a minimum wage worker would have to work 64 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. The 64-hour figure is a statewide number, which is skewed higher by Chicago rent averages.

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