Gov't Watch: City of Urbana program works to fund housing opportunities

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Regina Ramsey and her family, Shawtel Harris, 18, Makhii Jones, 5 and T'Aire Jones, 8 at 1107 West Hill Street, Urbana, where Habitat will begin construction of their new home in a a few weeks. They were at the site on Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

Lyanne Alfaro/For CU-CitizenAccess.org -- Two more low-income Champaign-Urbana families will soon each have new homes.

The new housing is a result of one of the many programs overseen by the City of Urbana Community Development Services.

This year, the department reapproved Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County as a Community Housing Development Organization.

As a housing development organization, Habitat can use federal funds to build affordable homes for the families.

The department approved Habitat for $70,000 last spring. The funds were set to go toward building two single-family units: one at 1205 W. Beslin St. and another at 1208 1/2 W. Dublin St., both in Urbana, which will be complted two years.

“(Habitat’s mission is) to build simple, decent, affordable housing to sell to low income families,” Sheila Dodd, executive director at Habitat, said in a phone interview.

Affordable Housing

Affordable housing is one of several services that Community Development Services provides for about 41,000 Urbana residents. Headed by Director Elizabeth Tyler for 13 years, Community Development Services is one of six departments run by the City of Urbana.

Community Development Services has 25 employees and four divisions: economic development, planning, building safety and grants management. Community Development Services’ 2013-14 budget is $1.6 million. It has increased by 1.9 percent since the 2012-13 budget.

Community Development Services provides inexpensive options to low and middle-income Urbana residents in need of housing. It is supported by federal money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that is distributed by the city’s grants management office.

The largest amounts of financing for affordable housing come from the HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program and HOME Investment Partnership program.

The development block grant programs are concerned with creating jobs, housing low and extremely low-income residents, as well as helping the local community to “eliminate slum and blight.” HOME’s focus is on developing partnerships with the private sector and government in housing and providing rental housing at reasonable rates.

Within the Planning Division, Community Development works on zoning and housing development projects throughout the city. It also develops tax increment plans, makes suggestions to the Zoning Board of Appeals and partakes in preservation planning initiatives.

Economic Development

The Economic Development Division focuses on providing a list of available properties, updated traffic count information and reports on particular buildings or sites. It directs the Tax Increment Financing Districts, Economic Development Fund and the Enterprise Zone, a service for new and existing Urbana businesses. Furthermore, the division leads an incentive program to bring businesses back to Urbana buildings, Tyler said.

 “We’re beginning to see offshoots … from Research Park in Champaign,” Tyler said. “Small businesses are coming out of the university and just other people locally (to Urbana), and this is a way to incubate them in a different type of environment than the more corporate environment at Research Park.”

Economic Development also oversees Urbana’s Market at the Square, a weekly farmer’s market in downtown Urbana and the Urbana’s Public Arts Program.

Meanwhile, the Building Safety Division makes sure that new construction and modeling abide by recent building standards and appropriately address health and life safety problems. It also issues construction, sign and fence permits. Building Safety runs three main programs: new construction, housing and multi-family rental inspection.

Habitat Project

Some projects take months to develop. For example, the most recent project took three to four months to go through the funding process, Jen Gonzalez, HOME program grants coordinator, said in an email interview.

However, because the original purchaser for the Beslin Street household can no longer be a part of the affordable homeownership program, Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County is working with another family looking for a household. Habitat will build the new home at 1107 W. Hill St. in Urbana.

“We hope to begin demolition and lot clearance of the property on Dublin in March and start the foundations on both properties in April or May,” Dodd said in an email interview.

Each location will receive $35,000 towards construction of a new home.

“The amount of funding awarded to any non-profit is determined by the Urbana HOME Consortium, which consists of the City of Urbana, City of Champaign and Champaign County,” Kelly Hartford Mierkowski, manager of the Grants Management Division at Community Development said in an email interview. “It is based on the underwriting for the project and availability of grant funds.”

When construction for Habitat’s Urbana homes comes to a close, Building Safety at Community Development will be in charge of performing one last inspection of the household before the buyers can inhabit the dwelling.

“Once the final inspection is completed, we issue a certificate of occupancy that allows (the family) to occupy the home,” John Schneider, Building Safety manager at Community Development said.

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