DECATUR — The Decatur Housing Authority recently met a major goal by filling nearly all of its units, but the full occupancy could mean that more people need housing assistance, Executive Director Jim Alpi said.
Thousands more Decatur residents qualify for help than the agency has funding to serve, he said. Hundreds vie for places on waiting lists that open only a few times a year.
Jerry Pelz, director of the nonprofit Northeast Community Fund, also said he sees an increased need for affordable housing in Decatur.
“(The housing authority) certainly does a good job of who they are able to serve in those situations but the need is greater than the resources that they have,” said Pelz, whose agency provides food, clothing and furniture vouchers. “We have to work together and utilize our resources to help the unfortunate.
“There is still a large group that below the poverty line that we aren’t assisting.”
U.S. Census figures also show a growing need for affordable housing, Alpi said. In 2000, one in six Decatur residents lived in poverty. By 2015, the number was one in four.
That means 19,000 Decatur residents are eligible for housing authority programs, even if they don’t participate. The housing authority currently serves 4,000 people or 1,700 families, Alpi said.
“Certainly that is significant, and a help, but it shows the gap there,” Alpi said. “When we think about the future, that saddens me.”
The housing authority manages 478 public housing units, all but three of which are full, he said. It also funds 1,096 vouchers for the housing choice voucher program, commonly known as Section 8.
Many prefer Section 8 because it allows them to receive a voucher and choose any apartment that meets the program requirements. Demand for this type of assistance is so high that the agency caps the waiting list at 300 people.
Alpi said the housing authority looks for opportunities to expand programs and increase the number of units to serve the “tremendous number of people in our community who could benefit.”
“As long as there is a waiting list, if we are full, then we are interested in finding ways to expand the stock, the availability (of housing),” Alpi said.
So far this year, the housing authority has spent about $490,000 a month on housing vouchers, Alpi said. The agency has $5.9 million to spend for the year.
“It’s a difficult proposition right now just because of all of these programs rely on having some kind of (public) funding source,” he said.
President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal year 2018 calls for cutting about $7 billion from the $48 billion budget for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That includes cuts to homeless assistance grants and a reduction of nearly $1 billion to Section 8, which helps about 2.2 million low-income families afford housing nationwide.
Funding cuts would make it even more difficult to serve the people who need help, Alpi said. He said the local agency has maintained a reserve that can accommodate short-term funding losses, but would need to make changes in the event of longer-term cuts.
“If we have reduced revenue and have to make adjustments, it generally will result in us not being able to provide quite as high level of service,” he said. “It has not come to that yet.”
One example the agency’s efforts to increase affordable housing is the eight new homes it built on West Macon Street last year with a $2 million grant from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office.
The money came from a settlement Madigan won after suing big banks for defrauding the public in the 2008 mortgage crisis. With the settlement money, her office funding projects like Decatur’s to provide more housing for low- to moderate-income families.
Construction was completed on the houses in January, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The housing authority started taking applications for the homes in June after the Herald & Review inquired about the continued vacancy.
Richelle Irons, director of neighborhood services for the city of Decatur, worked on finding the best neighborhood for the project on West Macon Street. She said the homes turned out nice and are a good addition to an up-and-coming neighborhood with many benefits.
Irons said she hasn’t seen an increased need for affordable housing in Decatur, where the cost of living is lower than some other cities and there is quality housing stock to choose from.
Instead, she said, the issue is that some residents don’t make enough money to support themselves.
“Nationwide it is very affordable to live here. But it doesn’t matter how affordable it is if they don’t have the means to pay that rent,” she said. “Folks have to make a living wage and provide for the needs of their family — that’s a separate issue.”
On June 1, roughly 600 people applied in person to be included in a lottery for the 300 slots on Decatur’s Section 8 waiting list. The application period lasted for one day only.
The lottery process controls the length of the list so that the applicants and information remains current and people are ready to move when a unit becomes available, Alpi said. Once a voucher is available, people have 90 days to find an apartment that meets program requirements.
“We try to prevent having a list so long it would take years or many months,” Alpi said. “I won’t say we haven’t had people that have been on there for more than a year, but we keep the list short so that it stays current.”
Other housing authorities manage the process differently and may have people on lists for years, Alpi said.
“(The lottery) seems to be the fastest and the fairest that we’ve found,” he said.
It will take approximately six months to house and process the people on the current waiting list, maybe longer. In the meantime, Alpi said, they might move, find places to live or decide they are no longer interested. Some also may be found ineligible for the program.
Then, the housing authority will open the waiting list and start again.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.