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Bloomington-Normal housing needs and solutions discussed at public forum

Bloomington-Normal residents discuss housing needs at the McLean County Health Department Building.
Jack Podlesnik
Bloomington-Normal residents discuss housing needs at the McLean County Health Department on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

A gathering of nearly 100 people discussed ways to address the Bloomington-Normal area housing shortage Tuesday night.

The McLean County Regional Planning Commission (MCRPC) held a public forum at the McLean County Health Department building for community members to give their thoughts on the current housing situation.

Fewer new housing units were built in Bloomington-Normal last year compared to 2022, according to building permit data reviewed by WGLT. Studies show the area needs up to 7,500 new units to solve the shortage.

At the forum Tuesday, a public discussion was moderated by MCRPC Community Planner Mark Adams. Standing at the front of the room with a marker in hand, he led the conversation and wrote down what members of the public were saying onto two large sheets of paper. He used them to lead the room in “SWOT" analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The public was ready to share their thoughts. Plenty of positives and negatives regarding housing in Bloomington-Normal went pen-to-paper as people shared their thoughts and stories.

Strengths included zoning changes in the core of downtown Bloomington and positive reviews of the city and town councils recently approving housing developments. Opportunities available to the community included more zoning reforms and rental regulation.

Meanwhile, abandoned properties with landlords who won't sell and an unwillingness from people living in neighborhoods to see more homes pop up within their community were listed as weaknesses. Upfront rental application fees and inflation were recorded as threats to housing.

Multiple people called for action regarding vacancies in Eastland Mall. They said open spaces in the mall like where Macy’s once was could be a possible site for low-income housing.

Bloomington-Normal's housing situation: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Jack Podlesnik
Mark Adams from the McLean County Regional Planning Commission led the room in “SWOT" analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Bloomington resident Jessie Hinshaw said transportation can be an issue. She said not having transportation, like a car, at your immediate disposal can make finding the right place more difficult — and while she thinks Connect Transit is doing a good job, the nature of catching a bus can strain things.

“You just hop in your car, that’s so easy to do. But if you have to find the bus stop, or if you have to call a cab, can you afford it? Are they available?” Hinshaw asked.

Illinois State University student Lily Linden said she and her mother are searching for homes near ISU and her mom’s workplace. But with their busy schedules, they can’t always tour potential housing immediately. That’s become a problem.

“Houses are going on the market and selling or being put on hold within 24 hours for a ton above asking price,” said Linden. “So unless you are able to drop everything to tour a house, you either know a realtor or know someone selling it’s almost impossible to find — especially smaller, single-family houses.”

Linden said an easy fix is to build more single-family houses, but she said she knows that’s not what the community needs.

Instead, she said helping people who are trying to move out of single-family homes into bigger houses may help, freeing up the smaller single-family homes for those who need them.

“I think helping people that have a higher income that are looking to upgrade from a single-family home to either a more expensive one or something. If there’s a grant or some tax break that we could give them to open up more of the single-family homes so renters that want to do that can do that and just kind of open up along the chain, that would greatly help our housing problem,” said Linden.

Recent ISU grad John School said housing for young college graduates is his main concern.

“I think that giving young people the opportunity to start their lives in McLean County — I don’t think there’s a lot of opportunities for housing for those people because of the prevalent amount of single-family housing that exists. Most of the county is zoned for that. And I think if we had more mixed-use, as well as just one-bedroom apartments or studios, I think that would encourage more people who are recent graduates to stay here and build economic growth in this county,” said Scott.

Scott added housing is treated as a scarcity, but needs to be treated instead as one of the core human needs.

Mark Adams, community planner with the MCPRC, said the commission was "ecstatic" with the turnout of nearly 100 attendees in person and via Zoom.

"It is very clear that affordable housing is a major need in McLean County, regardless of whether some people feel like it is not an issue," Adams said.

The commission is still taking feedback until 4 p.m. Friday via email and this online form.

Adams said the commission plans to use the feedback to help shape its regional housing recovery plan that it plans to release in late March or early April.

Jack Podlesnik is a reporter and announcer at WGLT. He joined the station in 2021.
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