Gerard pick for housing authority board could sway Bristol Park decision

Gerard pick for housing authority board could sway Bristol Park decision

CHAMPAIGN — Mayor Don Gerard said he planned to finish interviews of three candidates for an appointment to the Housing Authority of Champaign County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

The city of Champaign is one of the local agencies with representatives on the housing board, and Gerard's pick to replace current Chairman Al Anderson could hold a key vote in determining whether or not the city's plan to level a low-income, high-crime neighborhood goes forward.

Protesters crowded a board meeting in August and asked commissioners to vote down a plan to make 32 Section 8 housing vouchers available for special use by residents of the Bristol Park neighborhood who would be displaced by a city plan to purchase and demolish their homes. Those vouchers are worth an estimated $1,056,000, and are part of a limited number the housing authority is allotted by the federal government.

Opponents said giving special preference to Bristol Park residents only knocks other Champaign County residents waiting for rental assistance further down the list. Some of those residents have been waiting for years for housing vouchers, said protester and former housing commissioner Terry Townsend.

Townsend has organized a group called the Committee for Affordable Housing, and he said the housing board should first codify priorities for the homeless, disabled and seniors before it considers special assistance for the city's plan and residents of the Bristol Park neighborhood.

The city plans to redevelop the neighborhood and replace the affordable housing. But in the meantime, it is required to ensure that displaced residents are not forced to pay more for housing than what they are already paying. The Section 8 vouchers from the housing authority are a key part of that plan.

Gerard this week defended the plan as an innovative strategy in providing mixed-income, affordable housing. City officials have lauded the nearby and recently redeveloped Douglass Square and Oakwood Trace subdivisions as successes and expect that a new Bristol Park neighborhood would be a relatively similar development.

"It's really an exciting opportunity," Gerard said. "It is a little bit scary, but in the 21st century we have to do things a little bit differently."

But securing a special preference for Bristol Park residents who will need housing vouchers has proven to be a significant hurdle for city officials. At their last meeting, housing commissioners said city officials have not been completely transparent with the board about its plan to use the vouchers.

"What we were hearing was, they didn't know anything that was going on," Gerard said.

In the midst of last month's protests, the seven-member housing board voted 3-3 on whether to invite the city to formally present its plans to the board. The missing vote would have come from Chairman Anderson, who was forced to abstain because his term on the board expired in July.

He said during the meeting that the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees local housing authorities, had confirmed that he is allowed to sit on the board and chair meetings until the city sends a replacement. Until then, he said he will refrain from voting to avoid any legal issues.

Townsend said another housing commissioner, Lloyd Gwin, should abstain from voting on Bristol Park-related issues, too. Townsend said Gwin owns property in the neighborhood and would benefit if the city is allowed to move forward with its plan and begin purchasing Bristol Park lots.

Gwin, the pastor of the nearby Church of the Living God, said his actual involvement in the property at 1307 N. Clock St. is minimal. He said he is only holding ownership of the lot for a family that would have lost the home had he not gotten involved financially.

Since that Aug. 23 meeting, Gerard said, city officials have been meeting with commissioners "just to make sure exactly what we're looking at and what the city is shooting for."

He said he is trying to straighten out "incorrect and misleading information" about what the plan means for residents of the Bristol Park neighborhood.

"We don't want to put the future of our housing needs in the hands of, quote-unquote, talk on the street," Gerard said.