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Special Needs Housing Hard To Find In Central Illinois

Aerial image of subdivision in the background with message reading: Housing Blueprint: The Future of Housing in Illinois
Photo courtesy of the Illinois Housing Development Authority
An image from a YouTube video that explains the Illinois Housing Blueprint effort.

Representatives who work for central Illinois social service agencies and nonprofit organizations say finding safe, affordable housing is not easy—but it's an even bigger challenge for someone who has special needs.

That assessment came during an Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) Listening Tour on Tuesday—one of several across the state to review current and future housing needs in the state. IHDA also is surveying residents for additional input for its Housing Blueprint initiative. 

Chuck Hartseil of Autism McLean said results of a study his organization conducted with support from professor Frank Beck and graduate students at Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center found there are significant concerns about the safety of adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because they face challenges communicating their needs. In some cases, Hartseil said, they live in group homes and don’t have an easy way to report abuse and neglect.

He also asked if there are community programs that can train people with autism to live independently on their own.

Community Planner Lauren Gibson of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission said at a recent statewide conference she attended virtually that the issue of safety and accessible housing came up repeatedly for people with a variety of disabilities. She added, “There are innovative concepts and that is becoming part of the discussion,” but she did not elaborate.

Joan Hartman, Chestnut Health Systems vice president for strategy and public policy, said her agency is concerned about a lack of affordable housing for people who are recovering from substance abuse disorders.

“There seems to be a lot of housing for middle income, but not a lot of newer, nicer housing for people in the lower-income bracket," Hartman added.

An aging population and adequate senior housing also could become an issue in the near future.

“For aging parents and relatives, I think stairs are going to be an issue in the future," said community planner Alyssa Cooper from the McLean County Regional Planning Commission. "Questions to answer in the coming years will be how to deal with stairs so they can keep living independently longer.”

Others added there is such an aging housing stock in many central Illinois communities, there should be more government programs and help for residents who need significant housing rehabiliation. Emily Mueller of IHDA responded her agency has funding for such programs, but municipalities must apply for grant money and administer it. Both the City of Bloomington and Town of Normal participate. But Mueller said the reason for the Listening Tour was to capture the need and to quantify it.

Mueller said the need for supportive housing has become the top priority as a result of what IHDA already has heard during similar sessions across the state. Also making the top of the list: “We are hearing a massive need for housing close to transportation.”

Connect Transit has adopted recommendations from an ad hoc working group that included a stronger collaboration between the bus system, and government and economic development leaders when they are negotiating with potential new employers and retailers.

“There's a decent number of houses owned by banks/out-of-state investors who sit and let the house fall apart when it could be taken advantage of for affordable housing potential," said Kelby Cumpston, who works for Northbrook-based Brinshore Development that has built and rehabbed affordable housing in Bloomington-Normal.  “This is especially true for the west side.”

Cumpston said despite efforts like those of his employer, affordable rental housing is not easy to find.

“I've had many friends and myself over the years struggle to find even remotely what can be considered quality rentals for a low price that don't have ancient furnaces/window air units. I spent many years sleeping with a hat on because I couldn't afford to run an old furnace in an Illinois winter.”

He also said if rent is affordable, often residents pay more in utilities because of old, outdated equipment.

He stressed the city needs better code enforcement of safety requirements for rental housing and better education for residents about what they should do if they find a landlord unwilling to ensure safe housing.

Cumpston has announced his candidacy for a seat on the city council to represent Ward 7 on Bloomington’s northwest side. Incumbent Scott Black doesn’t plan to seek re-election.  

Bloomington City Planner Jennifer Toney shared that the city has received unofficial notice that it will be receiving $2.7 million in federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding to address lead and other health hazards in homes. She said the money will support eliminating lead from 72 apartments and making life-safety improvements for 75 homes.

Chris Collins, of the central Illinois nonprofit Housing Our People Everywhere or H.O.P.E., said he’s happy to see the state government initiative to develop plans for more affordable and supportive housing. Collins said his organization is doing its part by enlisting as many as 600 businesses “to give jobs to the jobless and homes to the homeless.”

He sees H.O.P.E.’s efforts as a way to create construction jobs for at-risk young people while building sustainable housing made from recycled materials. His fundraising model uses the Amazon Smile program and another shopping app that will result in a portion of sales from various local and national retailers being donated to H.O.P.E. 

The Illinois Housing Blueprint program was launched in March but the Listening Tour was sidelined by COVID-19 during the summer. Now, community sessions are being held virtually and a final report is expected by early next year. However, organizers stress this will be an ongoing effort.

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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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