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Low-income housing organization considers its future

By Paolo Cisneros'”Inside her home in the quiet 1600 block of W. Healey Street in Champaign, Shawna Abner-Davis balances a full-time job as a social worker with a part-time private practice, various home improvement projects and caring for her 12-year-old daughter Asia.

The 34-year-old single mother has dedicated her life to helping improve the lives of area children with mental health issues, but in 2005, when she was the one in need, one local organization helped ensure that Champaign County didn't lose a dedicated public servant.

Homestead Corp., an organization that provides housing for low-income area residents, built a house for Abner-Davis and provided her with grants that made it affordable. Five years later, she sits on the corporation's board of directors and works with local urban planners, social workers and activists to find solutions to the housing problems faced by some of the county's most vulnerable citizens.

"Basic needs need to be taken care of first before you can do anything else,' she said. "Stable housing is definitely one of those needs.'

Thanks to a team of passionate individuals, Homestead Corp. has sought out new and innovative ways to curb the effects of homelessness and poverty in Champaign County for 20 years. Today, the organization finds itself at a crossroads. At a time when more and more people are in need of low-income housing, administrators are trying to determine how to move forward and continue serving the needs of the community.  

A difficult path

Homestead Corp. traces its roots back to 1990 when a group of citizens who were concerned with the state of low-income housing in Champaign County banded together to find solutions. They established themselves as a not-for-profit and set about working to help some of the county's poorest residents.

When federal grant money became available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Homestead applied for and was given the money necessary to establish an SRO, or single room occupancy, apartment complex.

The building, which occupies a lot on Griggs Street in Urbana, still houses people in single room units that include a small kitchen and a bathroom. All of its 25 residents were legally homeless before moving in and earned less than 50 percent of the area median income.

"We're looking to provide housing for a segment of the population that could not be housed anywhere else,' executive director Aaron Smith said.

"A lot of our clients because of income, because of whatever personal issues they might have, they haven't been able to be successful in the traditional housing market, and they need a place where they can be housed, and the management and the staff is going to work to keep them in their housing.'

The two-story building sits just a few blocks from downtown Urbana. Blue awnings adorn the windows, and its lawn is neatly trimmed and accented with bushes and trees. Smith said the organization gets along well with its largely middle-class neighbors, even if that wasn't always the case.

Back in the 1990s when Homestead was working towards building the SRO, residents of both Champaign and Urbana fiercely objected to the idea of public housing in their cities.

Board member Shirley Stillinger recalls angry residents threatening to dump trash on her front porch and publicly berating her because she took a trip to Paris with her children.

The backlash was unexpected since the organization had decided to build in a modest section of Urbana after public outcries prevented them from building in Champaign.

"We had expected more compassion from that neighborhood,' she said. "It's not like we were going to where there were mansions.'

A lack of public support wasn't Homestead's only problem. If the group was to accept the federal grant money from HUD, the SRO would need to be housed in an existing structure. But in an area like Champaign County, vacant buildings can be difficult to find.

Paul Adams '“ the director of PrairieNet, a community information network for Champaign-Urbana '“ was involved in that process. HUD laws are mainly designed to fit the needs of big cities, which complicates matters for planners in Champaign County, he said.

After a lot of searching, Homestead decided to move a former barracks from the recently-closed Chanute Air Force base in Rantoul to the lot on Griggs Street in Urbana. Some board members estimate the move cost between $400,000 and $500,000 more than it would have cost to build an entirely new structure.

"If we wanted that big chunk of change from the feds it had to be an existing structure, and we couldn't do it without the federal money,' Adams said.

Today, the building is filled to capacity year-round with very few units ever becoming vacant, Smith said. Some people have been on its waiting list for several years. So while the building has helped to house some of those most in need, some board members believe an entirely new building '“ among various other new developments '“ may soon be necessary.

Solutions for families

In its earlier years, Homestead would buy local houses in order to refurbish them and rent them out at subsidized prices. At the height of this program, the organization owned nine houses in Champaign-Urbana.

Ultimately, however, the program proved to be financially unsustainable, and Homestead was forced to sell the houses to private buyers. Still, board members wanted to continue searching for ways to house low-income families.

Their solution was to use vacant lots given to the organization by the cities of Champaign and Urbana to build entirely new houses that could be sold to low-income, first-time home buyers at an affordable price.

Over the past eight years, the organization has built 12 houses throughout the community. Abner-Davis' house on Healey Street is one.

She first learned about Homestead Corp. at a housing fair at Lincoln-Square Mall in the spring of 2005. At the urging of a friend, she decided to attend the fair, even if her expectations were low.

"I really didn't think I was in a position to qualify for a home,' she said.

When she learned that Homestead built houses from the ground up, she decided to see for herself the lots that were available. To her surprise, they were scattered throughout the community, rather than being concentrated in a single area, as is the case in many cities that provide public housing.

Board member Len Heumann said Homestead's decision to scatter its houses throughout the community was a deliberate attempt to avoid creating ghettos.

"They're much like the Habitat for Humanity houses,' he said. "They blend right into existing housing, and no one can tell.'

Abner-Davis decided to move ahead with the process, and exactly one year after she attended the housing fair, she and her daughter moved into their new home. Having grown up in various apartments in New York City, the house is her first.

"I've learned a lot about lawn care,' she said.

Four years later, Abner-Davis said the move has been positive for both her and her daughter. Thanks to raises she received at work in addition to the money she makes through her private practice, she no longer qualifies as low-income and has recently started home improvement projects that will increase the value of her house. This year alone she has built a deck, installed laminate flooring in her kitchen and purchased new knobs for her kitchen cabinets.

The money she needs to complete such projects has come about thanks, in part, to her new house.

"Now I have space to actually have an office and be in a space where it's safe for clients to come,' she said.

Her daughter has also benefited immensely. A seventh-grader at Jefferson School, Asia spends weekends playing with friends in the backyard and frequently gives tours of the house to guests who come to visit.

"I think she's very proud of her home,' Abner-Davis said.

Looking ahead

Heumann is also a professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois. This semester, he's heading up a graduate level class comprised of 18 students who are studying Homestead Corp. with the ultimate goal of helping the organization determine how to expand its work in the future.

While it's still too early to say what their findings will be, Heumann expects the class to conclude that another SRO building is needed, in addition to options for elderly low-income residents and cooperation with local banks to create mortgage pools that would allow impoverished residents the opportunity to buy a home.

Heumann, who was on the board when federal regulations forced Homestead to relocate the building from Rantoul to Urbana, believes continued action at the local level is the best way to provide housing for low-income individuals and families.

"Quite frankly, you don't want this to be legislated out of Washington because it becomes cartooned,' he said. "It becomes overly simplified to meet the highest demand from the biggest cities.

"You really want local government. They can do the best job.'

As Homestead continues to assess its obligations as well as its options, members of its board remain committed to its goal. For some, like Abner-Davis, serving on the board is a way to give back to an organization that helped them in a time of need. For others, like Heumann, it's part of a lifelong effort to create a more egalitarian society and, ultimately, a stronger democracy.

"It's very hard for people to get involved in the running of their society if they don't have an address,' he said.

Homestead is now working with for-profit developer Brinshore Development to develop 70 new units of mixed-income affordable rental housing on the site of the former Lakeside Terrace public housing complex in Urbana. In keeping with its tradition of integrating housing, some of the units are targeted towards low-income residents while others will house those with more moderate means.

When that project begins to come to a close, Homestead Corp. will soon have to decide exactly what exactly comes next.

Board member Shirley Stillinger believes that while the variables are many, Homestead Corp.'s work will continue to be guided by a moral obligation to help those in need.

"I just feel that people have a responsibility to care for others,' she said. "It hurts any of us to have people living on the street.'

By Paolo Cisneros/For CU- Citizen Access

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.