Housing authority to hear Bristol Place presentation from Champaign

CHAMPAIGN — Public housing commissioners Thursday will hear a formal presentation from Champaign officials about a controversial project to level homes in the troublesome Bristol Place neighborhood and replace them with new, affordable housing.

It's not the first time they've heard of the plan and it won't be the last. The city is asking the Housing Authority of Champaign County for 32 Section 8 vouchers worth just more than $1 million to relocate the Bristol Place residents who would be displaced by the city's plan.

The Housing Authority of Champaign County Board of Commissioners will meet Thursday at 1 p.m. in the agency's administrative building at 205 W. Park Ave., C.

The request for housing vouchers that are in high demand but in short supply has rattled some activists who say that housing authority commissioners should have other Champaign County residents on their minds first before they worry about the city's plan to redevelop a neighborhood.

City of Champaign Neighborhood Programs Manager Kerri Spear said the housing authority would be a valuable partner in an affordable-housing project to rejuvenate a neighborhood where crime and neglectful property owners have been a problem.

The Bristol Place neighborhood is a seven-block section of the Bristol Park subdivision southeast of the Neil Street and Interstate 74 area. The city's proposal to redevelop the Bristol Place neighborhood is part of a larger project to improve living conditions in the entire Bristol Park area.

"As we've said several times during their meetings, this is a project we'd like to do in partnership with the housing authority because they're in the business of building and maintaining affordable housing," Spear said.

Federal law allows a local housing authority to establish preferences for who gets moved up the waiting list of people seeking rental assistance. Housing commissioners for months have been reviewing a plan to give preferential treatment to people who have been "displaced by government action."

That would include being forced out of a home by eminent domain.

Federal law also requires city officials to ensure that the residents whom the city moves out of homes do not end up paying more than they already are paying. That is where the Section 8 vouchers would come in if the city were to use eminent domain to purchase and demolish Bristol Place homes.

Housing commissioners on Thursday will not consider a pending resolution on the preferential treatment, but they will hear details on the city's plan.

"I think the key is just to talk about why it's important for the residents," Spear said.

Former housing commissioner Terry Townsend has organized his interest group, Committee for Affordable Housing, around an effort against the city's plan. He has said there are people outside of Bristol Place who are more in need, including the homeless, disabled and elderly.

Since activists intervened, the housing authority has added to the list of people who would be considered for preferential treatment, said housing authority executive director Ed Bland. If approved, the resolution would now include veterans, victims of domestic violence, homeless people, people with disabilities and people already living or working in Champaign County.

Townsend said Wednesday that the additions are encouraging, but not totally satisfying.

"I still think that's a back-door way of trying to give vouchers to the city of Champaign's Bristol Park project," Townsend said.

He added that he does not believe commissioners knew at the beginning of the process what they were being asked to approve.

"The executive director had cut these deals with the city of Champaign, and the board was not aware of what was going on," Townsend said.

Thursday's presentation from the city should clear that up. Bland said the study session was requested by the housing commissioners.

"I guess they just wanted to get a better understanding," Bland said.

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