Lawmakers look to use federal money to address housing barriers

Illinois received $8.2 billion in relief from the American Rescue Plan.
Illinois lawmakers could use funds from the American Rescue Plan to address barriers to housing.
Illinois lawmakers could use funds from the American Rescue Plan to address barriers to housing.(Mike Miletich)
Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 4:29 AM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Gray Media) - A committee of Illinois House lawmakers has met several times this month to discuss ways to use the remaining COVID relief money to help people get a roof over their heads.

Illinois received $8.2 billion in relief from the American Rescue Plan.

Prison reform advocates say many people looking to re-enter society after incarceration have little to no money when they return to their community, and it’s extremely hard to find a home.

That’s why many states have looked to the Return Home Ohio program that offers housing for hundreds of formerly incarcerated people. The Corporation for Supportive Housing argues Illinois could benefit from a similar plan.

CSH Senior Program Manager Richard Rowe said the Ohio program helps anyone leaving the Department of Corrections and those with severe mental illness from ending up back in prison.

Other advocates say Illinois should fund a needs assessment to ask returning citizens what they need.

“I think we tend to assume that people leaving prison all have the same needs,” said John Maki, innovation director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Many of them do. But, especially in this environment, there’s a lot of circumstances that are making these needs very complicated. So actually serving everyone as if they’re the same can actually hurt them.”

Maki also suggested lawmakers should support and scale pilot programs the Illinois Department of Corrections already has in place to provide housing. He suggested Illinois could utilize a change in the American Rescue Plan to use Medicaid for community-based crisis intervention services so fewer people stay in prison.

Maki said lawmakers can also ask agency directors about items or services they want to invest in over the next few years. States can use ARPA dollars through 2024, but Maki noted some investments could extend further into the future.

There are also longstanding barriers to housing for people with disabilities. Brand new housing developments are required to be ADA compliant, but most people with disabilities can’t afford to live in those buildings.

Advocates with Access Living say there’s not enough affordable accessible housing, and they want Illinois lawmakers to help. The organization wants Illinois to put a significant amount of funding toward new affordable buildings for people with disabilities.

Cathleen O’Brien, the housing community organizer for Access Living, said funds could also go toward home modification projects. She explained those modifications could be larger, such as building ramps to go inside facilities or adjusting the faucets in a home so anyone can use sinks.

“If you can’t get access to the shelter system but resources are being given out to people in shelters, that creates a huge disadvantage for people with disabilities,” O’Brien said.

Unfortunately, O’Brien explained that situation leads to more people sleeping on the street and not getting the help they need from service providers.

Lawmakers also heard from advocates helping refugees and people on registries find homes. The Housing Committee hopes to move forward with a plan to use the remaining federal funds when lawmakers return this spring. Committee Chair Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) would like to invite the Illinois Housing Development Authority to further discuss ideas members heard throughout November.

“And when we head into the budget-making process, we will work together in our bipartisan process to think about how much of this American Rescue Plan money we’re gonna dedicate,” Guzzardi said. “I’ll work with leadership on our side and continue the conversation with Rep. (Deanne) Mazzochi and leadership on the other side of the aisle to see if we can secure as much resources as possible to focus on solving the challenges around housing here in Illinois.”

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