“Not in our town” redefined
by Mike Kroll
A committee of the Galesburg Chamber of Commerce chaired by Rick Sundberg recently composed a report entitled “A Call to Action: Poverty in Knox County, Illinois.” This 35-page report (including the 20-page appendix of charts and data) essentially summarized mostly anecdotal data regarding local poverty and its impact on specific areas of the community including education, social services, health care, law enforcement and public housing. To the credit of the report's volunteer authors, it is well written and presented and compares favorably in these regards to many consultants’ reports which have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars only to be ignored by local officials. Unfortunately, the report’s concluding recommendations fail to reflect the principal content of the document and seem to have been arrived at independently and frequently at variance with the facts.
To its credit, the authors concede that poverty exists in the Galesburg area. But rather than seeking solutions to mitigate the plight or conditions of those in distress, it approaches the impoverished as a blight on the community to be eradicated rather than assisted. “The intent of this study was only in addressing the impact to the community and to develop recommendations. ...This committee is dedicated to further educating the community on the issue of poverty and has an ongoing mission in trying to minimize the impact of poverty in the future.” The “enlightened” authors of this report don't even make a pretense of concern for those less fortunate than themselves in Knox County, just minimizing the impact of the unwashed upon the other residents of the community.
The study recommendations essentially focus solely on a small segment of those in poverty as it scapegoats the poor who migrated to live in Knox County public housing from outside. A better example of undisguised economic bigotry would be hard to find than in four of the study's six recommendations that directly aim to discouraging poor families or individuals from seeking housing in Galesburg. The other two recommendations focus on gaining more funding to offset the cost of providing education and health services to the poor.
The broadest study recommendation is also the one that would have the most unintended negative consequences for the local community were it to be adopted: “establish a moratorium on zoning for new multi-family housing within the city of Galesburg.” If this recommendation were enacted it would impact far more than just the poor seeking apartments in Galesburg. For many young adults starting their first job as a teacher or nurse there already exists an unmet need for quality affordable apartments that could never then be met — discouraging some of the very people Galesburg most needs to move here to help rebuild our population and economy. It would also make it more difficult for those existing residents whose economic circumstances have been devastated by plant closings or the economic downturn to remain.
The study authors lament what they perceive to be a growing number of low income individuals and families that obtain subsidized housing through the Federal Section 8 voucher program. This Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program operates nationwide and provides a need-based rent subsidy to enable the poor to obtain safe and affordable shelter. The intent of this recommendation is to eliminate the availability of additional apartments that might be populated by a subsidized renter.
Many multi-family developers have historically obtained lower-interest financing for some portion of their new apartment complex by committing to make a some of those apartments available to participants in the Section 8 program. “One of the HUD efforts begun a few years ago was to de-concentrate low income housing and spread it across a community in an effort to develop income-diverse neighborhoods rather than concentrating all low-income housing in a small dedicated area,” said Marge Hulick, executive director of the Knox County Housing Authority (KCHA).
The nationwide experience of such low-income housing concentrations, especially in urban high-rise housing, has been almost universally negative. In cities across the country (notably including Chicago) HUD has sought to eliminate such concentrated low-income housing in favor of a combination of Section 8 vouchers and low-density public housing spread across a city. In Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in this country, many of the high-rise public housing projects were demolished in favor of dispersed clusters of low-density housing but the rate of new construction failed to keep pace with the sudden demand created by the demolitions. And, in a development that surprised HUD officials, many public housing residents offered the opportunity to live in new low density housing outside of their former neighborhoods passed on the opportunity in favor of wanting to remain in their current neighborhood despite the absence of available public housing.
Meanwhile many housing authorities in downstate Illinois, including Knox County, were facing high vacancy rates and desperately sought qualified tenants as a financial necessity. Just as Galesburg as a whole has lost population in recent years, there was a time not too long ago when the KCHA had so many unoccupied units that they remodeled to eliminate some of the largest apartments and contemplated demolishing a number of their buildings. One of the key metrics for maintain Federal housing money is meeting occupancy targets and this has not always been easy.
While it is not widely known, gaining admittance into public housing is much more complicated than simply filling out a form and signing a lease. “All public housing tenants are thoroughly screened prior to acceptance and many applicants are turned down for a variety of reasons,” explained Hulick. “In the case of Knox County we operate on a one-strike rule with regards to tenants who have run afoul of the law. If you have been convicted of any felony or drug offense we will not accept you into public housing or the Section 8 program in Knox County. And there are many other qualification a prospective tenant must meet as well, most of them actually originate at the Federal HUD level and are imposed upon all Federally-funded public housing programs.”
The general misperception that seems to be held by many (including the authors of this report) is that there has been a huge influx of Chicago poor into the Galesburg area to take advantage of available public housing. While the poverty report revels in questionable anecdotal evidence that exaggerates the number of people originating from outside of Knox County obtaining public housing here, the KCHA's actual tenant statistics are illuminating. During 2007 to-date KCHA had 283 total applicants and 245 individual or family move-ins across their entire realm of public housing and Section 8 subsidized apartments but only 91 originated from outside of Knox County and a good number of those did not come from Chicago, according to Hulick. KCHA statistics show 37 percent of all 2008 applicants were white and 59 percent African-American.
The KCHA has a maximum allotment of Section 8 vouchers totaling 280 but subject to availability of Federal funds. Hulick says that, in actuality, the actual number of vouchers used at any one time fluctuates around about 250. “This is a capped program without room or funding to achieve the constantly increasing numbers postulated in the poverty report. It is what it is and there is no room for growth and local demand is competitive.” Additionally, KCHA rules favor qualified local persons before making vouchers available to those seeking them from outside Knox County.
The assertions credited to Sundberg that “it is time Galesburg stopped accepting public housing candidates from Chicago” or of fellow committee member and mayoral candidate Karen Lafferty that “it is unfair and we can't continue to take the poverty from Chicago” in Monday's Register-Mail actually go beyond what is included in the text of the report itself. If such measures were actually enacted they would also violate Federal law that explicitly bars public housing from instituting residency requirements. Non-discriminatory residency preferences are permitted but expressly excluding candidates based on residency or prior residency is expressly forbidden and could hazard Federal funds for local public housing.
“At any one time there are a total of maybe 1,100 residents in all of the KCHA housing programs and all of them are low income by definition with the majority of them in the lowest income levels,” noted Hulick. “Even if every one of these residents were from outside of Knox County they amount to but a drop in the bucket by comparison to the total number of Knox County residents at or below the federally defined poverty level. This is a problem that simply does not exist despite what the poverty task force report might state or what the general perception of some citizens in the community may be.”
“To obtain housing from the KCHA, tenants must meet strict conduct qualifications and the standards for maintaining tenancy are stricter yet. If one of our tenants is even arrested they can lose their apartment and most therefore behave responsibly. Besides, people of all income levels should be and are able to live wherever they choose in America. The goal of our agency is to make safe and affordable housing available to all those who need it in Knox County and it is wrong to characterize our residents as non-productive slackers. Many of our tenants are disabled or elderly or otherwise ill-suited to seek employment and they don't deserve public ridicule.”
Two other study recommendations are “develop rules and regulations monitoring and governing the status of multi-family housing units in the City of Galesburg” and “revert current zoning status of multi-family housing to single family housing: grandfathering in existing units/homes.” Again the aim is to reduce available rental housing for the poor but the real effect is to reduce rental unit availability for anyone in Galesburg. The report authors have all but suggested that Galesburg's poor should be rounded up and forced out of town.
For all its focus on poverty and its impact on public housing in Knox County, I was amazed to learn that nearly the entire section purporting to represent a contribution from the KCHA must be questioned. Hulick was named executive director of the KCHA in June but her predecessor Don Tomlin continued to administer KCHA for that month as Hulick looked on and learned. It was July before Hulick assumed control of the housing authority herself. The poverty committee's report says that on July 17, 2007 Tomlin and Hulick made their presentation to the committee where “Margie Hulick led discussions regarding federal funding of voucher and Section 8 assistance which was stated as not always beneficial to local housing authorities.” The problem is Hulick doesn't remember any such meeting.
“I don't recall having a meeting with this committee or even with any single member of the committee. I never led any such discussion as referenced in this report and I certainly did not share any of the incorrect data attributed to Don or I as referenced in the report. Much of what is presented in the section of the report focused on public housing is not factual. I did have a brief telephone call with one of the report's authors where he asked me a few questions but we certainly didn't cover most of that credited to me in the report. During that conversation I requested the opportunity to review a draft of the report prior to it being made public so I could offer factual corrections and correct committee misconceptions prior to the release of the public report. I also asked them to provide me with a final copy of the report before it was released so I could share it with my board.”
As you probably guessed, Hulick was never afforded any opportunity to fact check a draft of this poverty report before Sundburg provided copies to the Register-Mail along with a personal commentary. According to Hulick there are substantial factual errors and misunderstanding related to public housing in Knox County and its tenants contained within this report. It wasn't until I shared my copy of the report that Hulick first had the opportunity to see it herself. While the Chamber of Commerce was forthcoming with an electronic copy of this report upon request by The Zephyr. (The report is available for download on The Zephyr’s website, <www.thezephyr.com>.
It is hard to believe that all 12 members of the study committee really share the viewpoint in this report or its recommendations. There are a number of thoughtful and responsible people identified as members of this committee including people with a strong track record supporting non-discrimination and social conscience yet that is no where reflected in this arrogant and ultimately counterproductive document. Not only do the data not support the report's contentions, the tenor of the report is both elitist and totally unsympathetic to the plight of a growing poverty community in our own midst.
There is plenty of poverty generated within Galesburg and Knox County that needs our help and assistance — not an invitation to get out of town. As Hulick noted, the contribution to this number made by poor outsiders who have decided to move to Galesburg is virtually insignificant in the greater scheme of the ongoing plight of poverty in Galesburg and Knox County. Local residents would be well served if this misdirected committee were disbanded and their report put in the recycling bin. If we want to study poverty in the future let our focus be on ameliorating its causes, helping our neighbors cope and overcome it and compassionately seeking to mitigate the long-term impact of the experience.