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Fairview senior affordable housing project fails to advance

image of proposed affordable senior housing
Town of Normal
The Fairview affordable senior housing project proposal will not go forward.

A hoped for affordable housing project for senior citizens in Normal will not go forward.

The Laborers Home Development Corporation, an offshoot of the Laborers' International Union, had proposed a 46-unit complex that depended in part on tax credits to finance construction.

“And they tried really hard, they submitted more than once. We thought it was a great project. It just didn't rise to the level of recognition by the state. The state has very few of these tax credits available, as I understand it, and they went elsewhere in the state. That project is not going to move forward,” said Town of Normal planner Mercy Davison.

The project had backing from McLean County government, which owns the property that includes the old Tuberculosis Sanatorium structure, and the Town of Normal. Public officials even tried to make it easier to gain the tax credits by having the Sanatorium building that also once housed the McLean County Health Department placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The project's failure illustrates the difficulties affordable housing projects have in proceeding with facilities that have a very thin operating margin. Some owners of existing affordable housing units in Bloomington-Normal have declined to remain inside the federally supported Section 8 program. Instead, they have preferred to offer their units at market rates in the expectation the community housing shortage will encourage occupancy.

The difficulty in supplying affordable housing is not unique to the Twin Cities.

In December, the Chicago Sun Times reported the Heartland Alliance, a Chicago-based social services organization that dates to the late 1800s, laid off 65 people, shuttered its affordable housing division, and started looking for buyers for the buildings. The move was intended to financially stabilize the organization and its health care operations for the underinsured and uninsured.

Affordable housing is one of the possibilities included in the master plan for Uptown South in Normal, though Davison said it's premature to think that will happen.

“We have a conceptual plan that's really solid. We have not started to actively talk to anyone about ideas for that site," she said. "There's more to do in advance. We still need to do other types of planning for design guidelines and study the infrastructure, etc. But it is an opportunity. And that's going to, you know, almost certainly go back to the issue of somebody out there getting tax credits from the state to do affordable housing, if that's the route that is taken.”

Davison said it would be difficult for the town to make up the difference with local incentives if the state does not approve tax credits for an affordable housing project — even though that is an identified need in the Bloomington-Normal community.

“The kinds of incentives that the state has available are pretty significant. That would require a lot of discussion locally, if we were to try to make up for that with a local incentive,” said Davison, adding the topic has not been discussed at the staff level.

Davison, in a WGLT interview, acknowledged that financial factors have slowed housing construction, noting the town did approve more than 1,400 units of new housing last year. Only a couple hundred advanced to completion, but Davison said that is partly due to long construction lead times, and financial factors. She said there is a significant amount of developable land in the town.

“There's a combination of maps in the comprehensive plan that talk about our growth priorities. Areas on that map show you which areas are most available for development based on being undeveloped, adjacent to roadways that have been improved, and utilities that are pretty much in place,” said Davison. “You'd find, probably, a few hundred acres, across the entire community if you were really looking. And then there's also the ability to ask for rezoning, too.”

She said another potential barrier to development is whether the land is available for sale. Some of it, including land across Raab Road from Heartland Community College, is still being farmed.

“It just turns out sometimes that the landowner isn't interested in parting with their property,” said Davison. “I know it's complicated with how you dispose of farmland property and how that impacts your taxes, etc.”

She noted several area agencies, including the McLean County Regional Planning Commission, are working on housing strategies, some of which are focused on affordable housing.

“They'll be hopefully releasing some results late winter, early spring with some recommendations that should be really helpful for the community,” said Davison.

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