Thousands waiting for affordable housing in Champaign County

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Cindi Herrera, interim director of the Housing Authority of Champaign County, on January 29.

If a low to moderate income family wants to get subsidized housing in Champaign County, they will need to go to the waiting room.

As of November, there are 1,182 people on the waiting list for project-based vouchers for the 734 units owned by the Housing Authority of Champaign County.

There are also 1,052 people on the waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher program for which the housing authority currently has 1,798 vouchers being used for the program.

There might be duplicate people on both waiting lists for affordable housing, said Cindi Herrera, interim director of the Housing Authority of Champaign County. Herrera said those numbers are accurate as of November, but “these numbers are moving targets that change almost daily but these are in the general range of where we remain most days.”

But both waiting lists are closed, which means there are many families waiting to get on the waiting list. Herrera said the authority has enough people currently on the lists for the next five years.

To apply for the waiting list once it’s open, a resident must log onto their website. Currently, however, the housing authority is working on a new website and the old one is inaccessible.

Information on the waiting lists, voucher programs, staff contact info and other resources are usually available on the website, but it has been down since October.

Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, said affordable housing is a widespread issue in the county. Patt said there are possibly thousands of families waiting for a voucher.

“People so desperately need housing. The most important thing in the world to them is a roof over their head,” Patt said.

While the Housing Choice Voucher Program gives vouchers to tenants to use for approved rental units, a project-based voucher is attached to a unit, meaning that if the tenant leaves the building, they cannot use the voucher elsewhere.

With possible federal tax cuts and the proposed budget for 2018, the availability of affordable housing for low income families could be negatively impacted.

President Donald Trump’s original proposed budget last May had significant cuts to social programs that include affordable housing. According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the budget proposed the capital fund for public housing be cut more than 50 percent.

The proposed budget from the House of Representatives and Senate for 2018 included less steep cuts. Still, Herrera is concerned.

“Because the federal government isn’t funding any new housing assistance, you only have to work with what you have,” Herrera said. “It’s possible based on the federal budget, we could be even decreasing the number of vouchers.”

Budget cuts to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could affect the upkeep and availability of housing in counties like Champaign. However, Patt said that the system for public housing is already tilted against extremely low-income families.

Most of the housing developments in Champaign are not for extremely low-income households, Patt said. Families are considered extremely low-income if they make less than 30 percent of the area’s median income.

“A lot of people wonder why are there all these homeless people, all these poor people, with so much money to spend on affordable housing,” Patt said. “But the overwhelming majority of federal, state, and local money for ‘affordable housing’ is for households above (50 percent) of the area median income.”

Bob Palmer, policy director of Housing Action Illinois, an advocacy group for affordable housing in Illinois, said Illinois is a state with a large number of low income families without access to housing.

“There’s such a shortage of affordable housing, over 300,000 units,” Palmer said.

According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 2017, there are less than 35 affordable and available homes for extremely low income households in Champaign, one of the lowest numbers in Illinois.

Herrera has been the interim director of the Housing Authority of Champaign County since Ed Bland, the director since 2003, moved to a different housing authority in Virginia this past June.

While the authority searches for a new director, Herrera said they’re focusing on their programs and waiting to see what their 2018 funding will be.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to carry through and implement the plans when you don’t know what the funding is,” Herrera said.

Whether the budget brings large cuts to housing programs or not, Patt said the real problem will not be going away anytime soon.

“There’s not a very big lobby for affordable housing,” Patt said. “The whole question is, affordable to whom?”

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