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'It is difficult right now': Housing coalition cites ongoing challenges in Bloomington-Normal

A home with a sign outside that says "Now Leasing" and a phone number
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
A significant increase in homelessness has taken place in McLean County since the pandemic.

It's getting harder, not easier, to find housing in Bloomington-Normal.

The McLean County Housing Coalition has updated its 2-year-old report on area housing and homelessness, finding vacancy rates remain low, and there are many applicants for each apartment. That can hurt the ability of people to get an apartment in the future if a property owner picks someone else the first, second, third, or fourth time applying.

"Every time you go and make an application and a landlord does a credit check, your credit score will go down each time," said Janet Hood, housing navigator at Bloomington-based Mid Central Community Action.

There's increasing use of application fees and rising income tests before owners offer a lease to a prospective tenant.

"It is difficult right now. There is such a demand for apartments that landlords can afford to be more selective," said Hood.

The U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency says the house price index for the Bloomington metro area has gone up 37% in the last year and a half, according to the report, with 20% of McLean County residents identified as severely rent burdened. That means they pay more than half their income for housing.

All this means if you have any strikes at all against you — lack of a credit record, bad credit, a criminal record, lower-than-average income — it's really hard to find a place to live. And this affects people who are not without means.

“Generally, 70% of those who are re-housed are fully employed," said Hood.

A family of four with an annual income of $60,000 is effectively in poverty.

The housing coalition observed that area apartment complexes and mobile home parks are increasingly being purchased by large, out-of-area companies, meaning they are even less likely to cut someone a break if they need it.

People who are without housing once also are more likely to stay that way.

“When families are unable to access safe and secure housing because of poor credit, they do not have the security needed to remain in one place long enough to rebuild their credit,” said the report that notes eviction rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels — 865 last year.

Prairie State Legal Services helped put one face on the problem in Bloomington-Normal for the report.

Amanda, a single mother with an autistic child, lost her job during the pandemic because she didn't have access to childcare and her child's father was abusive.

“She forced him out of the apartment, but then had no one to help with rent or childcare, and she was evicted," states the report. "She couch-hopped and stayed in hotels and in public spaces with her daughter for a year before she was able to secure a job, childcare, an apartment, and an understanding of the bus system. She moved into an apartment and paid $1,300 per month for rent. She was able to keep up with the rent for a few months, but fell behind and faced eviction again because her monthly costs exceeded her income.”

Vulnerability of migrants

Migrants are particularly vulnerable to housing interruptions, recurring homelessness, and exploitation. The report cites an instance from the Immigration Project of a woman named Gabriele who has a work permit and a Social Security number.

“For $950 per month, she shared one room with seven other women and children, in a 3-bedroom house with 30 total residents, all recently arrived immigrants to the U.S.,” said the report.

Gabriele paid more than $700 in application fees and was denied a lease dozens of times because she had no credit history, tax records, and rental history. One company was willing to rent to her, but required a co-signer.

“A man seeking to take advantage saw this and exploited her. He abused her physically, emotionally, and financially. After the man fled the state, she returned to the house with 30 occupants,” said the Immigration Project.

District 87, Unit 5, and the Regional Office of Education for McLean, Logan, Dewitt, and Livingston counties say the spinoff effects of housing instability hurt children, their development, and their ability to learn. One example is Lorena, who prepaid six months of rent to a "ghost landlord" who never provided contact information or maintained the property.

“Lorena and her children were living in a house infested with rats that had chewed holes in the gas lines, causing a gas leak and emergency gas shut off," according to the report. "The water pipes then froze and burst. The family spent the winter freezing and being bitten by rats even though they had income and funding was available to help them. There simply were no other rentals that would accept them. In the spring they abandoned the rental, declaring that they would be more comfortable sleeping in a field.”

The housing coalition said it will continue its efforts to ease and end homelessness and housing instability in McLean County.

It cited a need to increase inter-agency case coordination to meet individual needs, and for public education to build support for solutions such as emergency housing, permanent supportive housing, transitional housing for people leaving incarceration, and construction of additional affordable housing in the community.

Editor's note: this story has been changed to reflect the distinction between 'rent burdened' and 'severely rent burdened in one data point.

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