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Housing Matters: Affordable Housing And The Middle Class

Larry Pusateri speaks
Mary Cullen
Larry Pusateri, vice president of the Lightengale Group, presents on the barriers to affordable housing at the Housing Action Illinois conference in Bloomington on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

Editor's note: This is part of a five-story series reported at the Housing Action Illinois conference in Bloomington on Oct. 24-25. The stories ran Wednesday, Oct. 30, on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Affordable housing advocates say it’s time to stop saying “not in my backyard” to such housing projects. Stakeholders across Illinois say affordable housing might actually be your yard.

Sometimes the scariest part of affordable housing is the name.

Larry Pusateri, vice president of the Lightengale Group, a Chicago-based affordable housing consulting group that does work across the country, said the largest barrier to any affordable housing project is gaining public support, yet it should not be.

“They really need to look at the statistics,” Pusateri said. “Affordable housing can be up to 80% of an area’s median income, and that's definitely working class.”

And those who qualify for affordable housing come from a variety of job sectors. Michael Banghart, executive director at Renaissance Social Services, said affordable housing isn’t just for the poor and homeless; it’s for teachers, first responders, maybe even your family member, or you.

“It’s pretty much housing that is for the average, everyday person,” Banghart explained. “They do need to live somewhere. Not everyone’s a CEO.”

"You're going to pay for this housing one way or another."

And Banghart said even if this might not be you now, it could be you later.

There are societal reasons the snapshot of people eligible or living in affordable housing is so diverse.

Mary Ellen Tamasy, vice president of development with Community Partners for Affordable Housing based in Lake County, said the middle class is being priced out of the housing market.

“We’re helping homebuyers in a community right now buy homes who are making $50-60,000 a year,” she said. “But, that’s affordable housing for them because they can’t buy anything at $50,000 a year.”

Tamasy said housing is a ladder, moving up from no home, to renting, to owning a home. When one person moves up the ladder—from renting to owning—a space opens for the next person.

“For someone who is homeless, it may take them a while to get a job, get back on their feet so they can rent a place,” she said. “So there’s a continuum of people moving up the ladder and when a rung gets broken, then there’s a swelling at the bottom.”

That swelling means more homelessness.

And Pusateri said homelessness is a reason the public should support affordable housing developments.

“If you don’t serve people who are on the edge—who are just barely making it, living in substandard housing—then that will become a societal problem,” he said.

This is how Pusateri makes the case when pitching projects to cities and towns, “I like to tell them: You’re going to pay for this housing one way or another. You’re going to pay for it at the hospital, you can pay for it with your police, or you’re going to pay for it now and be proactive. But you’re going to pay for this.”

And if there is local support, Pusateri said the federal government throws in needed funding.

“We just need you to do the action,” he explained. “That’s a pretty good deal.”

Pusateri said governments often won’t OK a project without neighborhood support. He said it’s in a community’s best interest to get a hold on housing issues fast and to build coalitions with many stakeholders.

Pusateri presented on affordable housing at the recent Housing Action Illinois conference in Bloomington.