Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — Though they at first admitted to being confused on why the Housing Authority of Champaign County has chosen to invest in far-off communities, Champaign City Council members later praised its director for taking an innovative approach aimed at securing state funding.

When housing authority CEO David Northern joined council members Tuesday to discuss the organization’s various programs, developments and investment opportunities, some on the council expressed concern that it was putting money into communities more than 100 miles away from Champaign.

Council member Tom Bruno said he couldn’t figure out why when there are pressing housing needs here.

In response, Northern said that in order to have a better shot at securing affordable-housing tax credits from the Illinois Housing Development Authority and the federal government, the housing authority has to invest in communities forgotten by other developers.

He said it has a lot to do with the housing authority’s designation as a Moving to Work agency — one of only 39 in the country testing out new ways to help low-income families find affordable housing, as the federal government has stepped away from that role.

“We have to focus not just on what we do here, but what we see happening throughout the state,” Northern said. “Our goal is to create policy and opportunity in the state, so we have to invest where no one wants to invest. When we apply for low-income housing tax credits, IHDA looks at our history, and when we’re willing to invest in areas that are in need, they are willing to give us more points.”

As part of its goal, the housing authority has taken on construction of three senior living facilities: 24 to 30 units in the village of Ladd, 43 units in Robinson and 35 in Newton.

When asked why those facilities can’t be built in Champaign, Northern said that along with the tax credits, “some of it is because the areas around us don’t want us to invest there.”

“We’ve asked communities like Tolono and others if they wanted us to invest, but we were rejected,” he said. “We did an outstanding project in Mahomet, one that we looked as a staple product to show other communities, and still we received no’s. These cities are comfortable putting properties there; that’s why we’re doing it there.”

Council member Will Kyles said he would “love to see more work around our community as far as building affordable housing,” but has himself seen the aversion some residents have to placing those types of developments in Champaign communities.

As for the far-off investments, Kyles backs the housing authority's strategy.

“I understand the investment strategy, even though it seems intriguing why would you do that 150 miles away,” Kyles said. “But if you’re going to get X amount of dollars and X amount of low-income tax credit points to continue to invest here, it makes perfect sense to me.”

During the public-comment period, Urbana resident Martel Miller said though he said he liked many of the ideas and programs presented to the council Tuesday, he was concerned for those who are “rent-burdened in this community.”

“When we’re talking about affordable housing, you got the third-highest rent in the state here in Champaign,” Miller said. “Our housing rental market is so high that a lot of private apartment owners and people that rent out housing want three times the amount of rent. That may be fine for someone who gets a high salary, but what’s the highest income for a person who works retail stores, gas stations, hospitals?”

Miller pointed to the fact that 900 people signed up for a spot in the Bristol Place redevelopment, which had just over 50 available units when the application period opened.

“We either got to make a pay scale where everybody makes a living wage, or we’re going to have to do something where we can help,” Miller said. “I’ve been in front of this council over 15 years, speaking about the issues everybody sees. Most people don’t come because of their lifestyles. I come to speak for them. HACC is doing better than they have done before, but we need to look at the issues in this city.”