Availability of low-cost housing is not the issue in Rockford

By Paul Arena
CEO, Rockford Apartment Association

There has been much discussion recently about affordable housing in our community. The members of the Rockford Apartment Association are providers of affordable housing and therefore have an interest in this conversation. As the debate on the subject continues, members of the community should keep in mind that Rockford does not lack low-cost housing. We have a poverty problem, not an affordability problem.

Housing in Rockford is inexpensive. At the time of writing this article there are over 200 two-bedroom rental units in the Rockford area advertised on Craigslist for $550 or less. To qualify for a $550 rental, under common screening standards, the combined household income of the prospective tenant would need to be about $400 per week. A job that pays $13.50 per hour would provide that income. But many households in Rockford don’t earn $13.50 per hour. Our problem is how do we house families who can’t earn enough money to pay for housing without assistance?

The focus of this conversation has centered on building new subsidized housing located in areas that are less affected by poverty. It would be better to pay more attention on how public policy could better control the impact poverty has on an area. If that is not also addressed then we are just moving the problem from one place to another. De-densifying poverty without managing the negative effect of poverty only dilutes the problem. The issues that impact neighborhoods become less obvious but still exist.

Rockford should avoid a one-dimensional solution relying on relocation alone. For example, Chicago tore down public housing and displaced the residents to other locations. One of the methods Chicago used to relocate public housing residents was to mandate that private property owners participate in the Section 8 program. Effectively, private property was used to replace public housing whether the owner is willing or not. That policy has been expanded to all of Cook County. It has been proposed multiple times as a state-wide policy. The policy is wrong because it ignores the reasons why some rental property businesses avoid providing housing to people with government assistance.

Relocation is based on the fact that when people live in neighborhoods that are clean and quiet they enjoy a better quality of life. There are fewer factors from outside the home that could destabilize families. But moving people doesn’t change habits. Those who are inclined to be good citizens will continue to behave well and those who have bad habits will continue their negative behavior. The majority of people are good neighbors but those who are not cause chaos.

Housing providers only have two methods to control behavior on rented property. Restrict who is allowed to occupy a property or go to court and ask for permission to retake control of property. The court will also order money be paid to the property owner as compensation for losses when a tenancy goes bad. But poor people have no money to pay for compensation so losses are not recovered. That fact is why the existing system is ineffective when applied to low-income housing and why many housing providers choose not to house people who are renting with government assistance. Correcting this problem will create more housing opportunities for low-income citizens.

Public policy and how it applies to housing for low-income citizens should be a part of every conversation on subsidized housing. If we continue to only rely on the court system to manage low-income housing we will continue to have the same problems associated with low-income housing regardless of where it is located. Creating an environment that encourages the private sector to be part of the solution is better than a solution that is forced on the community.

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