Public Housing Tenants Cite Challenges in Finding New Homes
(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey of CU-CitizenAccess)
About a dozen residents from Joann Dorsey Homes and Dunbar Court protested outside of the Champaign County Housing Authority Wednesday to bring to light the troubles they have had finding a new place to live.
Their protest had the intended effect - a meeting with housing authority officials within the next week or so and increased help to find a place to live.
Earlier this year, the housing authority received federal approval to demolish the two apartment complexes as part of redevelopment plan to rebuild larger, mixed-income properties. The complexes have provided housing for low-to-moderate income residents and have been managed by the housing authority.
The properties make up about 90 units of the housing authority's public housing stock and are the oldest public housing properties in the area.
As part of redevelopment plans, the housing authority issued Section 8 vouchers to the residents in June. The vouchers, which provide subsidies for low income families and individuals, are used to rent properties nationwide from private landlords.
"We're out here today because one month ago we were given Section 8 vouchers, (yet) only five residents at Dorsey have been able to find housing," said Margaret Neil, a resident of Joann Dorsey Homes and a commissioner with the housing authority board.
Public housing residents said that finding a place to live under the new payment standards is difficult. Residents also say some landlords have ill conceived notions of people who live in public housing, and do not want to rent to those with Section 8 vouchers. They also say some housing units simply don't have enough space, or do not offer rent that is low enough to meet voucher standards.
"Most of the residents at Joann Dorsey I know that have found places, it's because their sister was renting from that landlord," Neil said. "They haven't gone out cold turkey and found a place. For most of the residents at Joann Dorsey and Dunbar, I think are from Chicago. So, they don't have those ties in the community."
Section 8 vouchers are known as "housing choice" vouchers and allow clients a chance to choose where they want to live. The vouchers cover application fees, security payments, and a certain amount of a tenant's rent based on income. For those with any type of income, the client is required to pay 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing costs. For those without income, the housing authority will pay 100 percent of the housing costs.
The client first finds a place and the housing authority then must approve the unit by calculating the client's affordability rate and then inspecting the unit.
"When we heard about, everybody was happy because they was going to tear (it) down and rebuild again," said Cleo Clay recently, president of the Joann Dorsey Homes resident council. "They were supposed to find relocation for everybody up here ... but the problem is houses we seem to be looking for is not affordable for us."
Clay has lived on and off at Joann Dorsey Homes for more than 20 years. It took Clay four tries before she found a place to live - which was pending approval from the housing authority.
"Everybody is getting frustrated and mad," she said, because the landlords are not accepting the vouchers.
The Champaign County Housing Authority has issued about 1,500 Section 8 vouchers and pay $9 million annually in rent, said Edward Bland, executive director of the Champaign County Housing Authority.
Up until last year, the housing authority paid 110 percent of the fair market rent in the Champaign-Urbana area. To conserve money, however, the board voted to reduce that amount to 95 percent, Bland said.
"We want to make sure that we are being fiscally responsible," Bland said. "There have been several housing authorities throughout this country that have run into a financial situation where they had to take families off the program because they were over spending money in the section 8 program."
The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Champaign-Urbana, according to federal housing standards is $713. Under the new rental payments, the housing authority will only pay no more than $688 for that apartment.
"As of June of last year, they effectively made it not feasible from a financial standpoint to rent to Section 8 (clients)," said local landlord Antwuan Neely.
Neely owns more than 100 properties in Champaign-Urbana - mostly single-family houses. He said he leases about one-third of his properties to Section 8 tenants.
At 110 percent, the former payment standard gave low-to-moderate income families more housing options, Neely said.
"But by reducing the payment standards, it seriously affected those families," he said. "Yes you still can find places in Champaign-Urbana, but with the economy as it is, now you have a lot more people looking for the same type of properties."
Of the 90 or so families in the two public housing complexes, 20 of them have found new places to live, Bland said.
"We will not be forcing any families to move before they are ready to move because we want to make sure every family is comfortable with where they want to go," he said.
Bland said that the housing authority held more than a dozen meetings since last year to work with residents and will continue to meet with them to alleviate their concerns. He said his department will not move forward with tearing down the apartments until all the tenants move out.
"We realize that for some they may need some extra help, and that's what the housing authority is here for," he said. "We're setting up additional meetings with the families ... within the next week or so (to) once again to let those families know they aren't being pushed out."
For the protesters, a meeting is just what they wanted.
"We hope that by picketing down here today, the housing authority will realize that the help they promised - we're serious, we want that help, we will be your face until we get that help, we hope that a meeting will come out of picketing," Neil said.
Late Wednesday, Bland met with Neil to discuss further assistance. He said that the housing authority will increase the value of the Section 8 voucher from its current 95 percent to its previous 110 percent for Joann Dorsey Homes and Dunbar Court tenants "for relocation purposes".
He said that housing authority officials still plan to meet with residents to discuss assistance.