Waitlist extends as Champaign County housing authority faces resource shortage

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Hamilton on the Park in Urbana is one of the Housing Authority of Champaign County's properties. Photo from HACC website.

Low-income renters seeking affordable housing in Champaign County have waited as long as two years for help.

Indeed, there are 5,210 individuals on the waitlist for all properties and programs that the Housing Authority of Champaign County supports, according to the authority’s 2020 Fact Sheet

The waitlist is about equal to the number of people being served by the housing authority. There are currently 1,800 families and close to 4,000 people living in affordable housing as of November said David A. Northern Sr., the authority’s executive director and chief executive officer.

“Once we have resources available for individuals, we pull the names off the waitlist, and we contact them to see if they’re currently still eligible for our programs. If they are, then they get off the waitlist and we start processing them to be in one of our units,” Northern said.

The authority has a history of having a long waiting list for individuals to receive affordable housing. The oldest application in their system is from November 25, 2018.

Northern acknowledges that it is not possible to build units faster to best accommodate current and future tenants. 

“Throughout the nation, there is a shortage of affordable housing. We can only do so much in terms of housing individuals. We only have a limited amount of resources,” Northern said. “One of the things that we’re working on, in D.C. with our legislators, is to redistribute the number of units throughout the nation, whether it’s housing units or vouchers.”

The annual budget from the federal government is about $23 million. According to Northern, they’re in the process of developing over $100 million in new units inside and outside Champaign County. 

Northern said the waitlist increased from 900 people in 2019 to over 5,000 in 2020 because the authority “works through the thousands of people on there” up to a certain point, then reopens the waitlist.

Northern said he believes that the waiting list does not have a negative impact on individuals. 

“By having a waitlist, we show a need…when we apply for additional resources the government, or whoever those individuals are, can see that we have a need here in Champaign County,” Northern said.

To combat this issue, Northern said the authority applies for additional funding to support the housing needs for those who are at a disadvantage and develops several units through the community to bring more housing units to prevent more issues.

“We have set aside special vouchers. Vouchers for homeless individuals to get preferences to get housing fast. We set aside 50 vouchers for that. We recently received vouchers from Ford County, and we’re managing the vouchers in Edgar County,” Northern said. “We apply for additional mainstream vouchers that deal with people with disabilities, the homeless and we just received the youth voucher for individuals aging out of foster care.”

The authority has a history of having a long waiting list for individuals to receive affordable housing. The oldest application in their system seeking for affordable housing is from November 25, 2018. 

Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, said affordable housing has been insufficient due the lack of support from the federal government. In addition, Patt mentioned that unemployment and low wages create barriers for individuals to obtain proper affordable housing.

“Low wages are a big contributing factor. More than but certainly unemployment aggravates it. Unemployment is a big cause of the big abundance of evictions which results in homelessness,” Patt said. “Nationwide, waiting lists are legendary.”

Since 1943, the authority assists low and moderate-income families who live in Champaign County through different housing service programs. Programs include the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In total, the authority has 694 units for housing.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program provides rental assistance in privately owned rental units for low-income people and families. It manages over 1,100 people and families in Champaign County and over 3,000 people are in the voucher program. 

As of September, about 1,590 vouchers are used under contract in the housing choice voucher program while 1,467 vouchers are used by units that are occupied.

The authority offers the Tenant Based Voucher Program. Within the Tenant-Based Voucher Program, there are 1,134 individuals waiting their turn to receive assistance, as stated in HACC’s 2020 October board packet.

“That’s (Tenant Based Voucher Program) the most desirable program. People have the freedom and the flexibility to move where they want to move and live where they want to live. They can rent from anybody with that program. You can take your voucher and move to Florida if you want to move to Florida,” Northern said.

Renters in Illinois need to earn $20.34 per hour to afford a passable two-bedroom apartment. Yet, Illinois’ minimum wage is $10 until it increases to $11 on January 1, 2021.

Bob Palmer, policy director of Housing Action Illinois, said there are over 100 housing authorities in Illinois. Palmer added that not every housing authority offers voucher programs, but most waiting lists are closed for those who do.

“There’s a long waiting list because the resources are — and it’s the federal government that funds the housing authorities and public housing vouchers — insufficient,” said Palmer.

According to the 2020 Illinois Housing Profile by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a 289,706 shortage of affordable and available rental homes to extremely low-income renters. Their incomes can either reach or are below the poverty level or “30% of their area median income.”

In addition, there are 450,590 extreme low-income renter households in Illinois, as stated in the NLIHC’s The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Rental Homes.

Patt said the authority has the potential to deliver good service for its tenants if the money was spent right on resources. She said it would help lessen the waiting list if there was a shift with their spending on other programs to create additional rent subsidies.

“They might very well have enough money to serve another 300 households a year. I think rent subsidies are the single most important thing and that they should spend every penny they’ve got on subsidizing rent,” Patt said.

Northern said he hopes the authority and the community can possibly deal with the issue of affordable housing. 

“We deal with many different populations. We deal with homeless youth, homeless adults, people in need of housing,” Northern said. “It’s a number of resources and funding that come about in our community to deal with homelessness and other areas of housing. So, with all of us working together, and collaborating, I think we can resolve the issue. But, you know, we, the housing authority, just can’t do it all.”

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