By Kathy Routliffe
Advocates of affordable housing urged U.S. Rep. Robert Dold Wednesday to look for “low hanging fruit” as a way of keeping such housing available to residents of Lake County and Illinois’ 10th Congressional District.
Even simple things like a name change to a tax program could lower the public stigma attached to affordable housing programs, they told Dold, R-Kenilworth, at his Deerfield Public Library roundtable.
Erasing that stigma, by spreading housing vouchers more equally across Lake County communities to avoid low-income hubs, as Lake County Housing Authority Director David Northern Sr. said the authority tries to do, or by convincing area charitable groups to address housing needs in their own backyard, are keys to healthy housing programs, advocates said.
Dold’s July 1 event was billed as a way for him to hear from affordable housing advocates in the public and private sector about which federal programs are and aren’t working and what affordable housing needs are in 10th District communities.
“We have some pretty significant needs in our communities,” he said after the session. “We need to have experts come together on those needs. … I don’t feel I can be effective as a voice for the people of this district unless I hear from them.”
“This is a housing crisis,” Nancy Fifer of the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council said as she opened the session by reminding Dold that his district contains some of both the lowest and highest income communities in Illinois.
“The economy is recovering, but we know it is not recovering evenly. … There are still a lot of people out there who are struggling,” she said.
Dold agreed cutting negative perceptions of affordable housing programs is important.
The title of a major tax credit program – the low income tax credit – is a case in point, said Mark Angelini, whose Chicago-based Mercy Housing group develops and manages affordable housing in North Shore communities.
“It should be called the affordable housing tax credit. You talk about low hanging fruit; that’s a real piece,” he said. “The important thing is to really de-stigmatize affordable housing and to recognize there’s not a location in the state that doesn’t have the issue.”
Angelini told advocates he understands the need for regulatory flexibility – something several speakers emphasized – and is willing to work on maintaining valuable financial and tax credit programs that are the lifeblood of developing or maintaining affordable housing.
Aligning state and federal housing assistance program regulations could help prevent developers and managers from getting stuck between competing guidelines, participants said.
“Make use of regulations from programs where we know the rules already work. The more closely we align things like compliance standards, the more we can streamline and the better we can operate,” Andrea Traudt Inouye, executive director of the Illinois Housing Council, said.
That applies to how developers can finance rehabs or new projects, as well as to regulatory hoops they must jump through to get projects approved by local, state or federal governments, attendees agreed.
Making programs work well with each other is boring and tough, but ultimately efficient, said Stacie Young who directs the Chicago-based Community Investment Corporation, a group that finances multifamily rehabs.
Advocates like Gail Schechter, executive director of the Winnetka-based Open Communities housing advocacy group, lauded Dold for holding the session and for bucking party lines to fight for housing programs.
“You acted independently and courageously,” Schechter said.
Dold’s recent legislative record on affordable housing has included votes against his own party. He was one of a small group of Republicans to vote with Democrats against the U.S. House’s 2016 appropriations bill for Housing and Urban Development funding.