BLOOMINGTON — A government check can make the difference between a family having a safe and clean home and living in a dingy, overcrowded apartment or homeless shelter.
But the subsidy isn't enough when a community lacks affordably priced homes, a regional housing study says.
"This is a very complex issue," said Vasudha Gadhiraju, executive director of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission, which helped with the study. "One of the things that we're still trying to do is define affordability, because affordability is defined in so many ways."
The study was led and founded by the commission, in partnership with the city of Bloomington, town of Normal and Bloomington Housing Authority. After exploring more than two years of data, the study identified housing needs for McLean County, particularly the Twin Cities, and provides guidance on housing policy to municipal officials, social service providers, housing authorities, management companies and other stakeholders.
A related study group is "looking at more data points, drilling down further than even the regional housing study provided, so that we have a really good snapshot to help form decisions on recommendations for where affordable housing should be placed in the community," said city grants coordinator Jennifer Toney. "That will help the city to determine what projects we might support in the future and maybe projects that we can help get pushed through these various incentive programs ..., " Toney said.
The study's findings, along with a headline-grabbing fire that displaced 29 people, has renewed interest in the topic.
Gadhiraju said the study found "way too much high-end, single-family, suburban-style $300,000-plus homes" and a lack of affordable housing for the poor, elderly, disabled and homeless. The county also has few new homes priced near $160,000; homes in that price range almost always are older.
And while the area median income for McLean County is $91,600, almost one in every five (19.5 percent) households has an income of less than $25,000, the study noted.
Bloomington City Planner Katie Simpson said it's important to understand that "affordable housing" is for people who make $60,000 for a family of four. "That could be a teacher, that could be a nurse. That could be any number of workforce positions," she said.
Rent subsidies in McLean County are available to fewer than 1,500 of the 8,000 households that may need them. More than 100 families are on a waiting list for Bloomington Housing Authority apartments. The housing authority stopped accepting Section 8 applications because so many families already were on a two-year waiting list for the federal housing vouchers.
"Even if most of the rental units in McLean County are affordable to a large segment of the population, there are still about 8,000 households with incomes so low that they would likely have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent on a market-rate unit," according to the study.
"The subsidy is what matters to folks in that lowest category of income," interim BHA Executive Director Jeremy Hayes said. "You can build new housing, but if it doesn't have a subsidy in place, there is no assurance that it's affordable to that lowest category, and you're really not addressing the need."
The housing authority has 620 units in Bloomington and has issued vouchers to 677 income-eligible households. BHA is authorized for more vouchers, but often can't use them because of a lack of money and other red tape.
"From the regional housing study we know there are thousands more that would qualify, but are not on the waiting lists or receiving assistance," Hayes said.