CHAMPAIGN — Following a back-and-forth between Housing Authority of Champaign County CEO David Northern and board members, the board unanimously approved the 2020 Move-to-Work plan pending approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The plan includes a new program that would give University of Illinois students who are part of the school’s Illinois Commitment program and are from households that get assistance from the housing authority the opportunity to live in UI residence halls. That proposal drew criticism from some board members and local housing advocates who don’t believe the housing authority should be spending money on students while it has a wait list of more than 1,600 people.
The student voucher program is just one of six proposed activities the housing authority board reviewed Thursday, with the others focusing on independent contracting opportunities, landlord incentives and partnerships with community organizations.
Another sticking point Thursday night was the Move-to-Work policy’s eight-year term limit for individuals ages 18-54.
Board member Linda Turnbull, a resident of a housing authority facility, frequently interjected during the comment period to call for eliminating the term limit, even putting forward a motion to that effect that was unanimously defeated.
Turnbull said the housing authority should be serving people for as long as they need it and not include an end date that could adversely affect some families.
“We need to get rid of this term,” Turnbull said. “As long as we have a way of measuring success through work or going to school, then why do we need a term? That is hindering people because they’re going to be kicked off when they’re not ready.”
Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, agreed with Turnbull, noting that the eight-year term limit could put mothers with young children in a very difficult situation.
“If they’re going into housing when their kid is 3 or 4 years old, how are they going to work full time and go to school to raise their income and also get baby-sitters to take care of her children?” she asked. “It’s not reasonable.”
Northern said the first person to be affected won’t reach their term limit until 2024 and agreed with board member Danielle Chynoweth that the board should study term limits and their potential effects.
“Allow our staff to look at the numbers to see what are the best decisions,” Northern said. “I don’t want to change simply to change; it has to be strategic. My suggestion is that we have a conversation about it. By having 2024 as the first time that anyone could be negatively impacted, we have time to take a look at this.”
Board members also debated the housing authority’s investment in communities outside Champaign County. It is currently working on facilities in the villages of Henry, Ladd, Robinson and Newton, ostensibly to bring in more federal low-income housing tax credits in order to build more housing in Champaign-Urbana.
That policy of investing in outside communities wasn’t sitting well with Patt, who said the housing authority should be focusing on the needs of people here, especially the more than 3,000 who were not able to get on waiting lists.
“The need here is great,” Patt said. “Why should our community suffer to help other communities? I think it’s very wrong to be investing in housing over a hundred miles away. If we had a surplus here, then I’m all for helping everyone.”
Champaign City Council members were also confused by this policy, making the same argument as Patt at an Aug. 28 meeting with Northern.
Echoing the response he gave to them, Northern told the housing authority board that the properties will not only bring long-term revenue streams and the possibility of tax credits but will also add about $30 million in assets.
Still, Chynoweth said she would like to see an opportunity-cost report before the housing authority invests in other communities.
“We’re doing outside investments because it does bring long-term revenues, but I want to see the projections of those revenues,” Chynoweth said. “I hear about it a lot: ‘Why are we investing outside the county?’ We need to look at that before we make these investments.”
Chynoweth also praised the remaining proposed programs and much of the rest of the plan. Those other programs include:
— The Small Business Opportunity Program, which would initially be focused on hiring independent contractors to perform federally mandated inspections on housing authority properties. Another proposed program would provide short-term bridge loans for contractors to “successfully comply with the initial 60-day construction period.”
— The Community Improvement and Support Initiative, which would repurpose 14 of the housing authority’s single-family scattered-site homes for community organizations like the New Beginnings Program, a Re-Entry Transitional Housing Program, the Boyz2Men Mentoring Program and InHisHands Orphans Outreach. The rest would either be auctioned off or retained for other community groups.
— A homeownership process for units receiving low-income housing tax credits, like those at Bristol Place. People who live there would have the ability to start leasing to own in the 10th year of the 15-year compliance period for the Good Steward Program. After residents complete nine years, they will have first right of refusal and then be placed in a unit that conforms with their household size. Then the housing authority will offer financial literacy, credit-repair services, counseling and training as well as “equity credits” for things like maintaining exterior areas, timely payment of rent or complying with self-sufficiency standards.
— A program to compensate landlords who agree to re-lease their units to participants in the Move-to-Work program $500 above the security deposit rate for damages. Landlords can also receive up to 80 percent of rent for up to one month annually for renting a unit vacated by a program participant to another participant within 60 days.