CHAMPAIGN-URBANA: Since the housing market crashed in 2007, the cities of Champaign and Urbana have received more than $2 million in state and federal dollars to combat vacant and nuisance housing.
Yet the number of empty houses is still climbing.
As of 2014, one in every 10 housing units in Champaign County sat vacant, according to the most recent U.S. census data available. That total number, 8,700, was nearly double the number of vacant housing units in the year 2000.
In 2000, there were 4,700 vacant housing units. By 2010 the number had risen to 7,000 in the county. More than half were in the twin cities; Champaign had 2,227 vacant housing units, while Urbana had 2,129, according to census data. Numbers for cities for 2014 were not available, but officials acknowledge the problems continue.
“We have definitely experienced vacancies. We have seen a lot of people that walked away from properties. Many landlords just walked away and said ‘I’m done,’” said Kerri Spear, Champaign’s neighborhood programs manager.
In an attempt to stem the rising numbers, Champaign and Urbana sought money from the state and from new federal programs designed to support the demolition or rehabilitation of vacant houses and to spur the construction of new residences.
Altogether, the two cities received at least $2.4 million from four programs between 2010 and 2014. Champaign supplemented the programs with $20,000 of its own funds each year.
A breakdown of the programs shows:
- The vast majority of that money ($2,010,000) came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, meant to prompt reinvestment in foreclosed and abandoned properties to revitalize neighborhoods that were hit hard by the housing crisis.
- $50,000 came from the Illinois Housing Development Authority’s Abandoned Property Program.
- The city of Urbana used funds from the state’s Blight Reduction Program and the federal Community Development Block Grant Program to demolish 15 properties, each costing $28,000, combining to total $420,000.
The largest grant, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, helped Champaign demolish seven houses and construct five new houses on those empty lots. The grant also was used to rehabilitate four other structures to provide affordable housing.
Overall, $439,700 was spent purchasing the homes, $58,130 was spent on demolitions while $1.35 million was spent on rehabilitation. These homes were largely in troubled neighborhoods in north Champaign, with three (including two demolitions) on East Beardsley, two on Sherwood Terrace and two on East Eureka.
These homes are in many of the areas that the Champaign’s Neighborhood Services department pays close attention to and uses targeted funds from programs like these.
While it is hard to assess the results of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program on local housing markets and neighborhoods, its impact on vacancy rates is minimal, mainly because the amount of funding it provides is small compared to the number of empty houses that resulted from the market crash, according to national studies.
The studies also identified that the difficulty of acquiring foreclosed properties was one problem with the program. The Federal Reserve Board also found that bureaucracy slowed down the rehabilitation of the properties.
In addition, a report commissioned by HUD reported in March 2015 that the second round of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program had no significant results on vacancy rates.
In total, Urbana and Champaign spent $2.6 million from federal, state and local programs to demolish 39 properties, build five homes and rehabilitate four residences. While the overall impact of the housing programs is relatively small, officials and some community members said the work was valuable because numerous individual families benefit.
Three houses that resulted from the programs went to Courage Connection, Champaign-Urbana’s only domestic violence shelter, meaning many more than one family benefited.
“The houses (from the Neighborhood Stabilization program) are significant for the people that live in them and their families because they are affordable and in good condition,” said Isak Griffiths, the executive director of Courage Connection.
Griffiths said that these houses are much better than typical low-cost housing in the area.
“When you make minimum wage, the housing that is usually available to you is not in good condition,” Griffiths said. “Then you end up paying a lot for heating, for example. The houses from the program don’t just have affordable rent, it is affordable housing.”
Although in total the efforts only address a small number of homes, Illinois Housing Development Authority’s spokeswoman Man Yee Lee said the state programs are worthwhile.
“We can never help everyone but isn’t it worthwhile to help out one person? Don’t you think it is worthwhile?” Lee said.
Johnathan Hettinger contributed to this story.
This story was updated on Nov. 4, 2016 to correct references to vacant houses in the article when citing Census data. The article has been updated to state the Census numbers were for housing units, which would include both vacant houses and vacant rental units.