McHenry County continues to lack affordable housing

Obstacles remain despite drop in area’s home prices

Published: Sunday, May 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The cost of living in McHenry County remains out of reach for many despite a significant drop in home prices since the recession.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for seniors, people with disabilities and anyone who is not in a high-paying job to live here,” said Mary Anne Weltch, chairwoman of the McHenry County Housing Commission. “Kids right out of college, nonprofit and factory workers, even teachers have a hard time.”

More than 40 percent of local families were living in housing they couldn’t afford in 2008, according to McHenry County’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan. Proposed developments in several towns could provide more affordable housing, but the shortage is so acute it could persist for decades.

McHenry County had 3,548 subsidized rental units in 2010, enough to meet 16 percent of demand, according to a 2012 study. The study found the county’s plan to add 30 units of affordable housing over five years was “insufficient to address existing need, much less the increase in need.”

Housing projects have been proposed in Crystal Lake and Volo, and developers behind proposals in Johnsburg, Huntley and Harvard have sought low-income housing tax credits from the Illinois Housing Development Authority. And Turnstone Development has said it plans to ask the IHDA for funding help for the 70-unit apartment complex it wants to build in Lake in the Hills.

However, many projects face an uncertain future.

Earlier this year, a Johnsburg village committee wouldn’t support a company’s plans to build a 70-unit apartment complex with affordable housing on Route 31 near Walmart because members said it wasn’t a good use of the commercial corridor.

Other McHenry County municipalities have restrictive zoning ordinances and land-use plans – such as large lot size requirements or little-to-no zoning designated for multifamily development – that discourage affordable housing, the study found.

One of the McHenry County Housing Commission’s initiatives is to discuss zoning issues with local municipalities

“There’s still some resistance to this,” Weltch said. “People think affordable housing means Cabrini-Green, but that’s not true today.”

While the commission’s focus is on spreading awareness about zoning policies inconsistent with fair housing standards, the study said the county should withhold funding from municipalities that don’t conform and require “affordable housing set-asides in residential developments that occur where public water and sewer are in place.”

Housing expensive in county

For those earning minimum wage or relying on disability benefits, renting in McHenry County is challenging.

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in McHenry County was $958 in 2012, according to the Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice study. That would require earning $38,320 a year – or about $18 an hour – to afford without spending more than the recommended 30 percent of income on housing.

For a minimum-wage employee, that would mean an 89-hour workweek.

“People living paycheck to paycheck are often spending 50 [percent] to 60 percent of their income on housing,” according to Hans Mach of McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness. “That’s a major contributor to homelessness in the county.”

But affordable local housing options for low-income earners are limited.

From 2000 to 2009, the county lost nearly a third of its housing units that cost less than $500 a month. During the same period, the number of units renting for more than $1,000 a month increased by nearly 200 percent, according to the housing study.

The McHenry County Housing Authority has 23 single-family housing units in the county and administers 947 housing vouchers. Last July, nearly 2,500 families were on the waiting list for the voucher program, according to the study. The waiting list now has about 2,400 families, said Julie Biel Claussen, the authority’s executive director.

Lack of affordable housing affects some of the area’s most vulnerable people, according to the study and local nonprofits.

Home of the Sparrow, a McHenry-based organization that helps homeless women and children, was “lucky” to get 13 affordable housing units through federal programs late last year and early this year, Executive Director John Jones said.

The units house about 50 women and children and allow the nonprofit to get families back into the community more quickly. Two years ago, clients spent an average of 18 months living at Home of the Sparrow’s shelter; now it’s four months. The units should allow nearly twice as many people through the program this year, Jones said.

Local leaders and elected officials need to accept the magnitude of the problem and take steps to correct it, he said.

Businesses also want more affordable housing.

“Living in McHenry County, especially in the southern part of the county, it’s awfully expensive for local workers,” said Gary Overbay, chairman of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. board.

The corporation recently backed plans for a 60-unit apartment complex on Congress Parkway in Crystal Lake. Overbay said such projects could benefit local businesses and their employees.

Taxes remain high

High property taxes and limited space for affordable developments have contributed to the county’s dearth of affordable housing.

The annual median property-tax levy for a home at the county’s median value is nearly $5,000, or 6 percent of median household income, according the study. Only 30 other counties in the country have a higher property tax as percentage of median income, according to the report.

County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill said the county is doing what it can with available state and federal dollars.

Recommendations from the study are being implemented but making the county more affordable will take time, McHenry County Community Development Specialist Kim Ulbrich said, as significant development is necessary to make a dent in the need.

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