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B-N Section 8 Housing Voucher Waiting List Nears 700

Man and woman sitting at a table with screen behind them at Normal Public Library Community Room
Colleen Reynolds
Matt Drat from Mid-Central Community Action Agency and Ariell Ashley, who lived at Home Sweet Home Ministries Homeless Shelter for a while. Ashley now lives with her four children in subsidized housing but she participates in a self-sufficiency program.

There are more than 700 people waiting for placement in a popular Section 8 public housing program called "Housing Choice," which issues vouchers for tenants to live anywhere in McLean County and pay 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Jeremy Hayes, executive director of the Bloomington Housing Authority (BHA), said the waiting list is closed because the demand is too great for those already on the list. 

"We need to think of affordable housing as economic development."

A McLean County Regional Planning Commission (MCRPC) study in 2016 found there were 8,000 people who needed low-income rent subsidies but the government only supplies enough money for 1,000 subsidies. The BHA offers services that help tenants with budgeting and saving for a house, a car, or education to improve their income.

As for the public housing buildings constructed and run by the City of Bloomington, Hayes said most of the units spread among nine sites are decades old, with the most recent addition built in 1983. He suggested other funding sources will be needed.

"Community Development Block Grant money is not enough to improve public housing," Hayes said.

At a League of Women Voters of McLean County-sponsored forum about a lack of affordable housing Tuesday night, local leaders said there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to affordable housing issues and McLean County faces its unique set of them.

For example, MCRPC Executive Director Vasudha Gadhiraju said there is enough housing to meet population growth for the next 20 years, but it's not the right kind of housing.

In recent years, construction growth was made up of large, expensive homes.

"Median home value was $160,000 and average new construction home value is upwards of $300,000 and so talk about affordability, that's not what's happening there," she shared.

The price for an average home sold is closer to $171,000, so that can make homeownership out of reach for many McLean County residents. A little more than 24,000 live at or below the poverty level, according to Mid-Central Community Action in Bloomington.

Area Median Income (AMI) is a critical measure used to differentiate affordable housing in each community. In 2018, the AMI for McLean County was $91,000. The federal government offers programs for people making 30 percent, 50 percent, and 80 percent of a community's median income.

Gadhiraju pointed out that some people making over 80 percent of the median income can still struggle to pay rent or a mortgage if they have high child care costs, education debt, or high medical bills.

Fixing Existing Affordable Housing

Advocates say part of the solution is rehabilitating existing affordable housing, but so much of the supply is represented by homes that are 80 to 100 years old. According to Matt Drat of Mid-Central Community Action, the average repairs needed on some of that existing stock is between $20,000 to $30,000.

"There needs to be a multiagency approach," he said. "We need to think of affordable housing as economic development."

He added: "When we talk about a One Voice trip, we need to think about these issues."

Drat is referring to an annual lobbying trip by a contingent of local government, education, and social service leaders who advocate for federal funding of key initiatives such as a pedestrian underpass in Uptown Normal.

What is needed, according to Drat, are solutions that give communities flexibility in using resources such as federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money and government incentives, many of which are set to expire on low-income housing developments where owners will no longer be required to maintain rent controls. There are hundreds of units that could be impacted in the next five to 10 years.

Gadhiraju said there are two ongoing committees working on afforadable housing solutions. One is looking at affordable and supportive housing for people with special needs. The other is researching innovative solutions.

The two meet regularly to review the latest, updated data and to consider a comprehensive look at factors influencing housing costs and affordability. For example, Gadhiraju said zoning laws that require certain setbacks and parking add to the cost of construction.

"The future needs mixed economic housing," Gadhiraju said. The regional planning commission's white paper outlined on its website indicates most new construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing involves layering multiple subsidies and funding sources.

Mid-Central's Drat questioned if the community has the political will to make difficult decisions that can have a positive impact such as creating neighborhoods where salaries vary wildly among residents.

He told the audience at the League forum that tax incentives to build affordable housing would be great but, "How will we find the place to locate it?" he said, referring to what he believes are people's misconceptions about who needs subsidized housing.

Editor's note: The headline of this story has been updated to clarify the waiting list is for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.
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