By: Kathy Routliffe | kroutliffe@pioneerlocal | @pioneer_kathy
October 10, 2013
Insisting that the changes they plan won’t eliminate the program but actually improve it, Wilmette village trustees unanimously agreed Tuesday to shut down two of three housing assistance program components, and limit access to the third.
Trustees approved a resolutions making those changes to the 34-year-old program at their Oct. 8 meeting, the same meeting which introduced Wilmette’s proposed $69.7 million 2014 budget.
The move disappointed supporters of the $48,000 housing assistance program, commonly known as HAP. About 25 of them, including family members of disabled program recipients, attended Tuesday’s meeting. They asked the board to delay voting to give them time to work with the village on possible alternatives.
“There are many families like us in the community,” said Ellen McManus, whose disabled daughter Laura has received mortgage support through the program for more than a decade. “People want to maintain continuity in their community and this program helps this to happen.”
“It’s not necessary to decide on this today,” said Gail Schechter, executive director of the North Shore housing advocacy group Open Communities. After invoking the memory of longtime Wilmette fair housing leader Jean Cleland, Schechter added, “We are prevailing on the Village Board to show your generosity of spirit.”
Board members demurred, however, saying they had to control costs to spare Wilmette homeowners from increased taxes.
“It’s a very difficult decision,” Trustee Allan Swanson acknowledged before saying he didn’t think the budget was the place for the housing assistance program. “I know many more elderly people who are threatened not because they aren’t able to pay the mortgage, but because they can’t pay their taxes.”
Instead, the board championed the concept of setting up a public-private partnership for housing assistance, whereby the majority of the dollars might be raised through private charitable efforts, supported in some largely non-financial way by the village.
“For those of you concerned with absent dollars, I believe the residents of Wilmette will step up to help you,” Village President Bob Bielinski said, adding that he was confident “we’re going to be able to raise more private funds than our tiny budget can provide today.”
Trustee Julie Wolf suggested that HAP supporters, recently organized into an unofficial group known as “Wilmette Cares” could help in such an effort.
The resolution includes:
• Putting an immediate moratorium on new applications for the housing assistance program;
• Shut off the mortgage assistance segment of the program, which serves two Wilmette residents who each receive a maximum of $1,800 per year toward their mortgage. Those two would be moved to the mortgage support part of HAP.
• Phase out the rent assistance component, which serves 12 people and has provided a maximum of $2,400 per year toward rent for needy seniors and permanently disabled residents. The phase-out would begin July 1, or at the end of the participant’s lease, whichever is later.
• Limit to four years the amount of time people can receive property tax support – the last of three HAP components. The change allows the seven existing tax support recipients four more years in the program, which provides a maximum of $1,800 per year.
• Cutting all village money from the program, starting Jan. 1, 2015, with the exception of $3,000 in HAP funds that are used for one-time emergency housing grants. That could continue to be paid for through general fund money once the existing escrow balance falls below $3,000.
Any HAP support beyond that will have to come from the non-governmental money in Wilmette’s housing escrow account, commonly known as the Red Seal fund. That account was funded in the first half of this decade by the developers of the former National Louis University property on Sheridan Road, and has provided $20,000 of the annual HAP budget since 2010. Village staff expect it to be depleted in early 2016, but believe it could recoup up to $100,000 from program beneficiaries required to pay back their help if they sell their homes.
By keeping the housing escrow account open, and by limiting HAP use to what would become four-year limits on property tax support to any one individual, the village succeeds in improving it, Trustee Cameron Krueger said.
Krueger, whose administration committee recommended the changes, said they will prevent long-term use of the program by a small number of recipients, pointing out that many current recipients have been in the program for many years. It will make the program fairer by allowing more residents access to what funds remain, he said.
In fact, the four-year sunset clause provides “a clear window in which homeowners can break free of the property tax welfare program,” Krueger said.
The changes won’t take place immediately because board members want to give existing program participants time to adjust and find other ways to cover their housing needs. In a report to the board, Krueger said the village has talked to New Trier Township officials and hopes to find alternative housing with their help.
Trustees also told listeners that they believe their needs would be better met by an almost completely private fundraising program that the village could support. Such a program has been successful in Glencoe, Assistant Village Manager Mike Braiman said during the discussion. The Glencoe model allows Glencoe to provide about $3,000 to housing assistance, while two charitable groups cooperate to raise about $15,000-$20,000 annually.
After the meeting, Schechter said she was disappointed that the decision was unanimous (Trustee Ted McKenna was absent from the meeting; Krueger, Swanson, Wolf, Bielinski and Trustees Mike Basil, and Carol Ducommun approved the changes).
Schechter and other supporters plan to meet Oct. 22 to decide how they should respond to the decision.