Planning Commission Director: 'Affordable Housing' May Not Mean What You Think | WGLT

Planning Commission Director: 'Affordable Housing' May Not Mean What You Think

Mar 5, 2019

Vasu Gadhiraju knows when she says “affordable housing,” many people think about low-income housing.

The issue has taken center stage in a number of recent public discussions, from a shortage of Section 8 housing to concerns over the rise of luxury student apartments.

But Gadhiraju says the community needs to get clear on just what’s meant by “affordable housing” before any real progress can be made.

"The most affordable housing is the one that we already have."

Gadhiraju heads up the McLean County Regional Planning Commission. She spoke to the Normal Town Council on Monday night about a white paper her organization published reviewing the issue.

“So far, we have been fortunate that our overall housing is pretty affordable,” she said. “However, there are segments of our population that it’s not affordable for.”

The paper further defines the concept based on household income as “housing for which the occupant(s) is/are paying no more than 30 percent of his or her income on gross housing costs, including utilities.”

In other words, affordable housing means housing that residents at all income levels can afford.

That key difference between what’s affordable for some and what’s affordable for all is one reason Council Member Chemberly Cummings opts for the term “equitable housing.”

She’s been outspoken in her time on the council about the need for a new approach—and a new term—for affordable housing in Bloomington-Normal.

Cummings said the town doesn’t offer enough diverse housing, including rentals for recent college grads or homes for seniors looking to downsize. She said she hopes the community will keep an open mind as the conversation continues.

“Affordable housing isn’t about giving a handout to poor people,” she said. Rather, it’s about offering a wide variety of housing options, without keeping residents of one income bracket walled off from the rest of the community.

“I hate when communities feel like they need to isolate people, because they are a part of our community, no matter what,” she said.

While there have been calls for the town to build more affordable housing, Gadhiraju said maintaining and improving the quality of the existing housing stock should be the greater priority.

“The most affordable housing is the one that we already have,” she explained.

Gadhiraju said construction costs have been on the rise in Bloomington-Normal, making new homes more and more expensive.

“The average cost of a new home is upwards of $300,000, when the median existing home is $160,000 in McLean County, so that’s a huge difference,” she said.

It’s not that larger homes are being built.

“It’s the cost of construction materials, workmanship costs; all these going up,” she said. “So we need to make sure that we are able to provide not just affordable housing in numbers, but the quality of that affordable housing.”

According to the white paper, both initiatives will require the “layering of multiple subsidies and financing sources.” That includes federal and state funding such as Community Development Block Grants, local funding like Tax Increment Financing, and funding from federal home loan banks and others in the private sector.

The RPC plans to produce several additional documents on the issue in the coming year.

BN Vitals

Gadhiraju also gave council members a look at the re-worked BN Vitals dashboard.

Developed last year in support of the BN Advantage initiative, the online tool lets users view and analyze over 220 metrics of life in Bloomington-Normal. Each metric provides a different perspective on the region’s economic activity, from workforce and employment to real estate and quality of place, she explained.

The dashboard also allows users to compare Bloomington-Normal to other communities in Central Illinois.

Gadhiraju said the dashboard is primarily intended to inform policymaking in McLean County, helping community leaders find meaningful answers to important questions.

“Are we diversifying? Are we growing? Are we not growing? Is the net population increasing or decreasing?” she explained.

The information will be useful to many secondary users as well, such as government and nonprofit leaders seeking funding through grants, she said.

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