BLOOMINGTON — Debbie Reese loves her residents and learning their stories at Home Sweet Home Ministries in Bloomington.
As the director of client services, covering McLean County and all surrounding counties, she sees people’s lives transform. She said it might take a week — or even a day — for new residents to go from feeling “so broken and so discouraged” to feeling safe.
“We in the upper-middle class don’t know how close we are to becoming homeless,” she said. “It doesn’t take much.”
Higher rental prices and diminished vacancy are making it difficult for the shelter to help solve housing crises for families and individuals.
HSHM CEO Matt Burgess said the lack of affordable, permanent housing in Bloomington-Normal is a big issue. He pointed to new jobs being offered to people out of town: As those people move to the area, the local housing supply gets smaller.
Burgess added landlords are demanding more from tenants to move in, with security deposits and monthly rental amounts on the rise.
Reese said: “We used to have these units that we could get to, and now we can’t, because of price.”
She also said the shelter is full for the first time in three years since she started working there. They haven’t had openings since about a month before the eviction moratorium ended Oct. 3.
Eviction filings doubled
McLean County Circuit Clerk Don Everhart told The Pantagraph there have been 274 residential eviction cases filed between Oct. 4 and Dec. 17. Of those, 103 cases have closed, with 78 being approved for eviction.
Compared to the same dates in 2019, 157 cases were filed, with 127 eviction orders approved. The lower number of evictions approved this year shows Illinois’ Rental Payment programs are providing a lifeline to renters at risk of being de-homed due to impacts from COVID.
Adrian Barr is the managing attorney for Prairie State Legal Services, which serves low-income people and seniors at no cost. He told The Pantagraph that they’re working through a backlog of eviction cases and it’s the highest he’s seen in 10 years of working in McLean County.
Barr advised those struggling with making rent to keep open communications with their landlord and pay as much as they can, as well as immediately apply for rental assistance.
He also said people must show up for their court case. He noted that not everyone appears, which means some get evicted without his agency ever touching their case.
He said they work as a team with municipalities and rental assistance programs, which are managed by Mid Central Community Action Agency, to save people’s housing when possible.
Burgess said evictions restarting have exacerbated the situation for their clients.
Reese said they’re not getting a lot of new shelter residents directly from evictions. But she questioned how many people are couch-surfing with friends or relatives until they’re kicked out.
“They don’t report that,” she said. “What they say is, ‘I’ve been living with so-and-so and I can’t live there anymore.”
Then there are cases where people leave their homes on their own when they get behind on rent, without an eviction order, she said.
Best occupancy ever
Kurt Hoeferle, owner and president of Apartment Mart in Bloomington, said there’s been strong demand for housing for a while. While this is typically a slow time of the year, he said they’re seeing constant turnover, with maybe 10 to 15 people moving out each month.
Hoeferle said at first, they didn’t see their tenants fall behind during COVID. After the stimulus checks slowed down, they had some late accounts, but “not as many as you might think,” he said.
Hoeferle said his company stopped charging late fees and just worked with their tenants who were struggling. He could tell when long-term renters with good payment history were in circumstances beyond their control.
For a company managing about 1,600 units, he said a handful of their tenants fell behind, and their staff connected them with rental assistance programs or offered payment plans to those who couldn’t get resources.
While it is a tighter market, and some places get rented in a hurry, there are affordable places available, Hoeferle said. He encouraged people searching for a rental unit to call property management offices to get put on their list.
Edgar Miller is the rapid rehousing navigator at HSHM helping clients find their next home. He said landlords tend to look for tenants who make 2.5 times the monthly rent amount, so a comfortable living wage would be $13 per hour with full-time employment.
He said a few restaurants and fast food places are offering $13 to $14 per hour now, but that’s typically for part-time work. And, Miller said, they have to compete with high school and college-aged students for those jobs. For someone in their 30s, their chances of being hired are slim.
Miller also said the cost of rent has gone up: a one-bedroom apartment that used to rent for $450 can now go for $650 a month.
“We as a community need to work together to build more or convert more homes into multifamily units to reduce the price of rent,” he said.
Reese added the biggest effect of COVID is on childcare: People can’t work if their kids’ school or daycare is closed. And not many employers can offer two weeks of paid time off.
Steve Tassio, case management supervisor at HSHM, knows this struggle well with his clients. He said many parents don’t have the option of working from home when their kids are kept from school because of a COVID exposure.
He describes it as the “Zoom-ocracy.”
“There’s just not readily available daycare at the whim like that,” Tassio said.
Reese added parents can’t find a sitter who’d knowingly take a child exposed to COVID.
No safety net
Reese recalled that if anything happened when she was first married and having kids, she could rely on her parents for help.
Many of her clients don’t have that safety net — but she knows they still need a helping hand. With their shelter filled up, her only recourse is to try to refer them to others.
“They are human beings that have had some rough times,” she said. ”There’s a lot of trauma that has happened in their lives.
“They’ve learned not to trust people. So when they come here and begin to trust us, that warms my heart.
“The world has taught them not to trust.”
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Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison