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BLOOMINGTON — Janis Hollins and her husband, Andrew, know what it's like "to have a past preventing our future."

They also know what it's like to turn around their lives.

That's why they call their business No Limits Real Estate LLC. The Hollinses, who buy and rent older homes on Bloomington's west side, try to give tenants — some with a questionable past — a second chance. They are among four landlords participating in the PATH (Providing Access To Help) rapid re-housing program.

It's a response to the lack of affordable housing in Bloomington-Normal, combining state money with the efforts of local human services agencies, landlords willing to take a chance, and tenants wanting to improve their situation.

"I see it as one of many answers," said Karen Zangerle, executive director of PATH, whose programs include coordinating services for the homeless in McLean County.

A McLean County Regional Planning Commission study released last fall found a gap of affordable housing for low-income people who need help paying rent. There are subsidies for fewer than 1,500 of the estimated 8,000 family households that need help, the study concluded.

The study also found few permanent housing opportunities for the homeless.

As a result, some poor people pay more rent than they can afford, which means any unexpectedly high expense puts them at risk of falling behind in rent and being evicted.

Sometimes, it also means putting up with cheap apartments that aren't properly maintained.

"Low-income rentals are at a premium," Zangerle said. "It is difficult for them to find a place, especially families with children."

"No more than 30 percent of your income should go to housing (rent or mortgage payments)," Zangerle said. But low-income residents in Bloomington-Normal frequently pay 50 percent or more of their income for housing, she said.

Section 8 vouchers allow qualified low-income people to pay 30 percent of the income for rent to participating landlords, with the balance of the fair market rent paid for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Bloomington Housing Authority.

Each community is allowed a certain number of vouchers, depending on the size and income level of the community. There is a two-year wait for vouchers in Bloomington-Normal, Zangerle said.

"We need to maintain the property, make repairs, pay for insurance, pay real estate taxes and the bank (mortage payments)," Janis Hollins said. "Most of it is not going into our pockets."

Some landlords willing to rent to people with a criminal history or poor credit don't maintain their properties because they figure tenants won't complain, Zangerle said. The Hollinses are just the opposite.

"I was homeless 26-27 years ago," Andrew Hollins said. "I have a past and it was not good. I was a felon but it was not a violent crime. It's been 25 years ago. I came over here (to Bloomington-Normal) and changed my life."

Hollins was a chef and Janis Hollins was a broker's assistant in 2009 when both of them lost their jobs. They attended a real estate seminar and hired a real estate coach.

In December 2010, they organized No Limits and began buying and renting older homes. They now have 13 buildings and 20 leases, spread across single-family homes, duplexes, tri-plexes and one four-plex. Rent ranges from $300 to $975 depending on size.

"We try to meet people where they are," Janis said. "We don't judge a person's future based on their past. The person has an opportunity to change. ... But we tell people, 'If you wanna stay, you gotta pay. If you don't, you gotta go,'" Janis said.

"The lease says what we expect," Andrew said. "We give them a change to prove themselves. They either do it or they don't."

Tenant responsibilities beyond rent include keeping their apartment clean and reporting any problems to the Hollinses. 

"Some tenants don't understand all their responsibilities," Janis said. "Some of those tenants had experiences with landlords that make them jaded. There needs to be mutual (landlord-tenant) respect. If they don't respect me, they won't respect my house and if I don't respect them, it becomes a power struggle. I let the tenant know 'You can talk with me.'"

Usually, it works, the Hollinses said. One former drug dealer was a good tenant for nearly three years and recently moved with his family into a home. A couple of other tenants also have worked their way up to better housing.

When it doesn't work, the Hollinses try to help the tenant find other housing. "Avoiding eviction saves money and time for everyone," Janis said.

Zangerle said, "I don't think more one-site (subsidized) housing is the answer" to the shortage of affordable housing. The answer may be for a consortium of landlords to agree to accept more tenants with a questionable past — provided those tenants receive support from human services' agencies, Zangerle said.

That's the idea behind the rapid re-housing program, intended to find long-term housing for some of the homeless.

PATH and other agencies identify homeless people likely to succeed in long-term housing. Using money from the Illinois Department of Human Services, PATH help those people with overdue rent and utility payments, moving costs, the security deposit and first three months' rent as they look for a job or a better one, Zangerle explained.

So far, a handful of landlords — including the Hollinses, John Kauffman and Young America — have agreed to participate. Three formerly homeless people have been placed so far with three more in line, Zangerle said. She hopes 15 to 20 people will be helped in the first year.

DHS has allocated PATH $83,000 for the first year of the program and $41,000 for the second year, Zangerle said. PATH also is applying for HUD money.

"I think it's a blessing," Janis Hollins said of the program. "It could be a key to open a door to independent living. I want this program to be successful because I want the tenants to be successful."

Providing stairsteps

After 20 years as a landlord, Karen Elias has seen the best and worst of tenants.

“You’ve got good ones mixed with bad ones,” said Elias, who with her husband Don, owns and manages Midwest Properties, a 15-building, 165-unit complex on the city’s south side.

Most tenants pay their rent on time and cause few headaches, said Elias. But about 10 percent damage their apartments and stop paying rent.

Elias lets tenants know up front what’s expected of them: “I tell them pay your rent, respect the property and respect the neighbors.”

A chronic problem is the condition of common areas, such as hallways, where tenants leave trash. The Eliases clean hallway carpets twice a year but the dirt returns.

“You can’t control people,” Elias said.

When Elias considers a potential tenant, she looks at employment information and the ability to pay rent, but that's not always a full picture.

“If people have had problems in the past, I ask them to tell me the story. I might do a 3-month lease and then renew it for six months and then a year. I give them stairsteps and try to give everybody an opportunity,” said Elias.

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Contact Paul Swiech at (309) 820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech

Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_lunny

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