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Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005 04:01 pm

Critical piece

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ILLUSTRATION BY LISA A. FRASIER/KRT

Illinois ranks among the toughest states for poor people to find decent housing, and state lawmakers can do something to change that.

The lame-duck General Assembly, which wraps up business on Jan. 11, must act on bills to create a critical rent-subsidy program --
similar to the federal government's Section 8 program -- or see the legislation disappear.

"It's one of the most important pieces of legislation we have considered in this session," says state Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, a lead sponsor of the bills. "It would create new housing opportunities for disabled people, seniors, and low-wage workers."

The bills propose the creation of a rental housing support program, which would provide state subsidies to landlords who rent to low-income tenants.

The program, which would be overseen by the Illinois Housing Authority, would raise an estimated $30 million a year and assist 5,000 to 10,000 "extremely low-income" families -- or those who spend more than 50 percent of their incomes on rent.

A new charge placed on real-estate documents filed in county-clerk and county-recorder offices would provide the funds. But debate over the size of the fee has kept the bills from moving forward.

Two variations of the bill are stalled in legislative committees.

One version calls for a $10 fee -- $9 for the program and $1 to the county for administering it. The other bill proposes an $11 fee, $2 of which would go to the county.

"It wouldn't cost the state any money," says state Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, another of the bills' lead sponsors. "Our legislative leaders need to look at the bigger picture."

But time is running short. The 93rd General Assembly finishes its work on Tuesday, and hundreds of bills crafted during the last year will die in its wake.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has kept mum about the subsidy program, though he has taken steps to address the state's lack of affordable housing. Early last year, he appointed a task force to study the issue; its report is expected to be released next week to coincide with his State of the State address.

Illinois has earned the dubious title of least affordable state in the Midwest, according to the annual "Out of Reach" report, released two weeks ago by Washington D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The nonprofit group used 2000 U.S. Census numbers to calculate the amount of money a household must earn to afford a rental unit at a fair-market price, which includes the rent and
utilities.

The report analyzes the gap between rental-housing costs and wages, factoring in federal guidelines that households should not spend more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent. The results are posted online at www.nlihc.org.

"Nowhere in the country can a person work at minimum wage and afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment," says Linda Couch, deputy director for National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The report shows that, on average, a U.S. worker must earn $15.37 an hour to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. That's nearly three times the federal minimum wage, which has not been increased since 1997.

Earlier this week, Illinois' minimum wage was officially increased from $5.15 to $6.50.But that still falls far short of the $15.44 an hour Illinois workers ($10.90 an hour in the Springfield metropolitan area) must earn to afford rental housing, as reported in the study.

"By hiking the minimum wage to $6.50, we're still in a precarious situation," says Blagojevich spokesman Gerardo Cardenas. "But it's a step in the right direction."

What Springfield is doing

While big, bustling metropolises like Chicago are hardest hit by the affordable housing crisis, smaller cities throughout central Illinois also feel the pinch.

In Springfield, 3,933 households pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent, qualifying them for affordable housing assistance.

In nearby urban centers like Peoria-Pekin, 6,280 households can't afford rents, and Champaign-Urbana has 7,642 such households.

These statistics are compiled in the "Out of Reach 2004" report released last month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C.

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin recently announced plans to add 200 affordable housing units in the city. This is the first objective listed in his 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

"We'd like to double that number, but we're trying to be realistic," says Rita Tarr, who chairs the mayor's task force on homelessness.

Other goals listed in the 10-year plan include a 24-hour hotline offering social-service information and referrals; a full-time staff person to coordinate the county's social service agencies; and evening bus service throughout the city.

The plan can be viewed in its entirety at www.springfield.il.us.

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