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SOUTH JACKSONVILLE — Even with Social Security, her late husband's pension as a former Jacksonville police chief and her own pension, Wanda Irlam says she would have a hard time paying rent for most two-bedroom apartments.

"I think it would be very hard to find a place," said Irlam, 84, a retired school food service worker who lives in the Jacksonville Affordable Housing development. "This is just a good place to live, and it's very affordable and very safe."

Her $382-a-month rent, which covers water and sewer service in this Morgan County village adjacent to Jacksonville and 36 miles west of Springfield, compares with other rents for similar apartments in the area that can cost $800 or more per month.

Most of the rental units in the 254-bed development come with lower-than-market rent because of a federal tax credit available to developers of affordable housing for construction and renovation.

Faced with a chronic shortage of safe, decent and affordable housing for working-class residents and senior citizens, Illinois lawmakers are looking into creating a state-level tax credit for investors that would generate even more financing for developers and more rental units.

The Build Illinois Homes Tax Credit, part of House Bill 3123 and Senate Bill 2440, is sponsored in the General Assembly by Rep. Delia Ramirez and Sen. Mattie Hunter, both Chicago Democrats, but it has bipartisan support.

The proposed tax credit is expected to be part of end-of-session budget negotiations in the legislature this month.

Advocates said affordable housing is needed now more than ever because household budgets have been squeezed by job loss and reduced hours during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They said the main hurdle in establishing the state credit may be the cost to the state at a time when Illinois faces a $1.4 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year related to the pandemic.

The credit would more than pay for itself over 10 years by generating $1 billion over that period in income for Illinoisans through more than 17,000 construction-related jobs and related spending by consumers, as well as additional state taxes and local property taxes paid by developers, according to Allison Clements, executive director of the Illinois Housing Council.

The council is a not-for-profit group that promotes the creation and preservation of affordable housing.

The credit would mean an estimated $35 million less each year in state income tax revenue and other state tax revenue from companies and other investors offering financing to developers in return for the state tax advantages.

But Clements said legislation to create the credit — something offered by 20 other states, including Missouri, Colorado and Nebraska — wouldn't affect state revenues for at least one or two years.

The credit couldn't be claimed by investors until a housing development was finished and occupied, she said.

"This is for the state to help rebuild the economy," Clements said.

The federal low-income housing credit can help developers cover between 30% and 70% of a project's cost, she said. The state credit would help cover part of the rest.

Similar to rental housing projects financed with the federal tax credit, developments benefiting from the state credit would have to be affordable to households earning at least 40% less than an area's median household income, depending on household size.

For example, a family of four in Sangamon County would qualify for the reduced rents with an annual income of $51,400 or less, Clements said.

There's a crisis nationwide in the availability of affordable housing, something that researchers say contributes to the health and educational success of families and children. The problem has gotten worse during the pandemic, Clements said.

Advocates for the legislation include the housing council, the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County, Illinois Realtors, Illinois chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, city of Chicago and the Chicago Teachers Union.

According to the council, about 375,000 Illinois families spend more than half of their monthly income on rent. And the council says that in 2020, a minimum-wage worker in Illinois would have to work about 85 hours a week to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment.

The National Council for State Housing Agencies estimated that as of September 2020, 540,000 Illinois families were unable to pay their rent, and the estimated backlog of rent owed in Illinois in January 2021 exceeded $1.2 billion.

State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said he supports creation of a state tax credit as "a great way to promote more private development" and satisfy a need for affordable housing for low-income renters in rural and urban areas throughout Illinois.

The state tax credit also would make some developments more financially viable so developers can take full advantage of the federal tax credit, he said.

Pastor Silas Johnson of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Springfield said a state tax credit would "help tremendously" in reducing the 300-family waiting list for affordable housing through the Nehemiah Homes project affiliated with the church on Springfield's east side.

The South Jacksonville housing development is owned by Bloomington-based Laborers' Home Development Corp., a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Laborers International Union's Midwest region.

The organization owns and develops affordable rental homes and apartments for families in various Illinois communities, including South Jacksonville, East Peoria, Pekin, Carmi, Canton, Paris, Olney and Centralia.

Construction of affordable housing employs union laborers and serves communities, said Jayne Lourash, the corporation's executive director.

The federal credit helped pay for a $12 million renovation project that was completed at Jacksonville Affordable Housing in 2010.

Jo-Ann Cromer doesn't trust her city's white officials to have her best interests -- or those of her fellow Black residents -- at heart.

The approximately $390-a-month rent that Kya Mott pays for the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her 9-year-old daughter in Jacksonville Affordable Housing helps the single mother have a little money left over after groceries, utilities and other basic living expenses.

Mott, 31, employed as an in-home caregiver, said she has lived with her daughter in the housing complex for the past six years. The neighbors are friendly, she said.

"The apartments are great, and pretty affordable," Mott said, adding that the staff is responsive when something in her apartment needs to be fixed.

"It's just so clean, and the staff is so nice," she said.

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