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Biernacki: DeKalb housing study a great start

Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

DeKALB – DeKalb officials want to expand a report that took a comprehensive look at the city’s residents, their demographics and available housing options.

Echoing others, City Manager Mark Biernacki described the DeKalb Housing Information Project from Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies as being a great start for the city.

“This is an incredible piece of work,” Biernacki said. “With the exception of them, no one but myself is more familiar with the number of hours they put into this report.”

Using data from the city, DeKalb County, NIU, DeKalb Township, DeKalb County Housing Authority and the private sector, NIU researchers put together a report that examined various housing and quality of life statistics and how some of those statistics match up to other cities that host public universities in Illinois.

The project was led by two research associates at the NIU center, Shannon Sohl and Jennifer Groce. Groce also is running for DeKalb mayor. Sohl, along with center director Diana Robinson and report author Kelley Chrisse, presented the report to a special session of the DeKalb City Council on Tuesday night.

Sohl recommended the council update the database they assembled for the project on an annual basis, something that DeKalb aldermen expressed a desire to see.

The study found that the city’s housing stock is 56 percent rental units and 44 percent owner-occupied units. Most of the city’s rental units are located around NIU.

Not only are these neighborhoods adjacent to NIU some of the most densely populated in the city, they also contain the youngest residents with the lowest incomes. Sohl said these neighborhoods generated more than half of the study area’s calls for police service.

The study found that residents who are older and have more money live in the outermost neighborhoods to the north and south, where houses tend to be more expensive.

But as Tuesday’s meeting went on, different city officials and landlords pointed to areas the study didn’t address.

The study examined potential oversupply and undersupply of homes and apartments based on how much a family can afford. By this examination, there could be more than enough homes with a fair market value between $81,000 and $241,000, and rental units between $500 and $1,250.

But the study does not take into account people who would spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing costs, Sohl said.

“This is not an indicator of means or motivation. This is based on their ability to pay based on their income,” Chrissie said. “For whatever reason, people decide to pay more.”

Chrissie said it is hard to determine what NIU students – who make up at least half of DeKalb’s rental population – are able to afford for apartments because they have access to money that is not income – loans, grants, scholarships, or their parents.

The study also compared NIU/DeKalb with five other communities that host public universities – Urbana-Champaign, Macomb, Charleston, Carbondale, and Bloomington-Normal. In terms of median household income between 2007-2011, DeKalb had the second highest, after Bloomington-Normal.

Sohl said in an interview after the meeting that the comparisons were based on data, and not favorability.

“In order to understand if something is favorable or not, you have to understand the strategies of these individual communities,” Sohl said. “So what might be considered high to us, might be right on target on what they intended to do.”

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