CHAMPAIGN — An activist is speaking out against a plan to give preferential housing assistance to residents who will be forced to move out of the Bristol Place neighborhood while city officials say it would help those residents' transitions out of their homes.
Terry Townsend, a former housing commissioner, will lead a protest outside the Housing Authority of Champaign County Thursday afternoon before its board meets inside. Board members have been considering whether to give Section 8 housing vouchers to residents of the Bristol Place subdivision, which the city plans to level and rebuild.
The protest is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. outside the Housing Authority's headquarters at 205 W. Park St., C. The board meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. inside that building.
Giving the vouchers to Bristol Place residents would knock others further down the waiting list for housing assistance, Townsend said.
"The people on the existing Section 8 list would be displaced," Townsend said. "And in our mind, that's discriminatory against the people already on the list."
Champaign city officials are in the beginning stages of a plan to revitalize the entire Bristol Park area. As part of that plan, the city would buy all the properties in the Bristol Place neighborhood — one of three subdivisions in Bristol Park, an area east of Neil Street and just south of Interstate 74 — and residents would have to move out.
Then, the neighborhood would be demolished and redeveloped.
Federal law requires that the city ensure assistance is available for displaced residents. To make sure the residents would not have to pay more than what they are already paying, the city asked the Housing Authority to make 32 housing vouchers available at an estimated value of $1,056,000, said Greg Skaggs, community development specialist for the city.
But the local Housing Authority is allotted a limited number of vouchers, which are in high demand among residents throughout Champaign County. Skaggs said the housing agency has the authority to set preferences for who may be moved to the top of the list, as long as those preferences apply countywide.
Townsend said he expects that a number of interest groups will participate in Thursday's protest.
"We'll picket, we'll make this issue known to (the housing board), to the city of Champaign, that there is great opposition," Townsend said.
Housing Authority Director Ed Bland and board Chairman Al Anderson did not return messages seeking comment on Wednesday.
When the board convenes its meeting, the topic may come up in discussion, but no vote can be taken. The resolution that would allow the Housing Authority and the city to move forward with the plan as proposed was removed from the agenda this week.
Skaggs said it makes sense for the city and the Housing Authority to work together on the redevelopment of Bristol Place. Both agencies have an interest in providing quality, affordable housing.
The Bristol Place neighborhood is home to the lowest-valued residences in the city and one of the highest crime rates. Property-code violations abound, and city officials for years have been planning how to improve the neighborhood and the quality of life there and in surrounding areas.
The Housing Authority's involvement is a key part to that plan. Skaggs said the agency can contribute in a number of ways and at different levels of investment.
"We are just kind of letting them work out amongst themselves what type of partnership, what type of percentage" the Housing Authority is interested in, he said.
If the plan does not get board approval, the city will have to consider other options.
"We would have to look at, OK, if they are out of the picture, are we comfortable then with just going forward, covering the additional money that they would have brought?" Skaggs said.
Thursday's planned protest is about more than just the Section 8 issues, Townsend said. He opposed the Bristol Park plan as a whole, and he said it would "psychologically disturb" existing residents and deepen their financial challenges. He wants to see preferential treatment — but for the homeless, disabled and seniors first.
"Rather than give preferences to Bristol Park, we want them to do these kind of preferences," Townsend said.