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CHAMPAIGN — A plan to house low-income University of Illinois students in dorms with voucher payments from the Housing Authority of Champaign County is getting some heat from one member of its board.

The new pilot program, which the board will discuss Thursday, will be another part of the Illinois Commitment free-tuition initiative and would give about five local low-income students in housing-authority-assisted households the ability to live on campus. The initiative doesn’t currently address other costs, like room and board, course fees, summer classes or other student expenses.

But with this year’s housing wait-list count at over 1,600 people, board member Danielle Chynoweth doesn’t think the housing authority should be paying the UI to put students in expensive dorms.

She noted that the UI already requires freshmen to live on campus unless their families live in town; “therefore, these vouchers are not necessary for students to attend school — it only adds the benefit of being able to live on campus.”

Chynoweth added that she’s raised concerns with housing authority CEO David Northern that it was not increasing vouchers for community members “in desperate need” and said she would instead support giving housing opportunities to low-income students who are facing homelessness or domestic violence or exiting the foster system.

“Paying UI Housing for a handful of freshmen who have the option to live with their parents to live instead in dorms is not a good use of limited local housing dollars for the poor,” Chynoweth said.

Northern doesn’t see it that way.

“Me coming out of Gary, Ind., and going to a dorm was the best thing for me,” Northern said. “I didn’t need to be going home and hanging out with the same old people. I needed to go away and focus on learning and growing as a young man.”

For Northern, the student voucher program is a way to address local gun violence and underrepresentation of low-income youths at the UI.

Northern said as one of two Move-to-Work housing authorities in the state — along with Chicago — Champaign has more latitude to try out new initiatives like student housing, though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t normally give vouchers to students.

The vouchers will only be offered to housing-authority-assisted households that comply with the agency’s Move-to-Work Local Self-Sufficiency Program, and they will cover the full cost of on-campus housing during the time the beneficiary is actively enrolled as a full-time student with a passing grade-point average.

In this year’s Move-to-Work annual plan, the housing authority said the program would help “eliminate major barriers hindering access to education for low-income families,” and notes that students who live on campus are more likely to maintain higher GPAs, take more credit hours, have higher retention rates and are more likely to graduate on time.

He said this is just one way that the housing authority is thinking creatively about getting more people housed, since constraints put on by a lack of federal housing dollars have forced housing authorities across the nation to think outside the box.

Northern was also very clear in saying this measure will not take away vouchers for anyone.

“What we’re doing is not taking any housing away from the citizens,” Northern said. “It’s about giving better access to education. If it weren’t for my education, I wouldn’t be where I am today, I can assure you of that.”

Despite Thursday’s vote by the housing authority board, this is still just the first step in getting the student voucher program together.

Daniel Mann, associate provost for enrollment management at the UI, said he and his team met with Northern in July about the program, but he has not had any follow-up meetings since then. And the program still has to be approved by HUD, though Northern said the housing authority’s status as one of only 39 Move-to-Work agencies in the country will allow them to implement it.

Mann said he’s waiting for that part before the UI can get more involved.

“The Illinois Commitment program ensures that tuition and fees are covered with grant funding for students who meet the eligibility requirements, and the student voucher program would potentially help these students with living expenses,” Mann said. “We are waiting to see if the funding becomes available prior to developing any sort of implementation plans, so there are no details to share at this time.”

Reporter

Aldo Toledo is a reporter covering local government at The News-Gazette. His email is atoledo@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@aldot29).