Photo by Carla Waters

Residents and officials talk about a community revitalization partnership survey in Watseka Nov. 18.

Watseka residents were able to participate in a community revitalization partnership being conducted by the city through the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

Earlier in the year people were able to answer questions through an online survey. Some of the findings were presented Nov. 18 at city hall in two meetings. People could attend either the 1 p.m. meeting or the 7 p.m. meeting.

Meghan Cuneo of the Illinois Housing Development Authority presented the findings, noting that this is part of a Community Revitalization Strategy.

At the 7 p.m. meeting Cuneo said the partnership between the city and the authority started in April. “Since then we’ve been completing a lot of the different components that are involved in the partnership, housing stock survey, community needs assessment survey, some census data. We’re about halfway through the partnership right now so we thought it was a good point to take a deep breath, pause and go to the community with some of our findings.”

The Illinois Housing Authority is the only financing agency that allocates tax credits to places outside Chicago, she said. “Our special little department is focused solely on technical assistance for communities who want to do long term planning. All our services are completely free. We enter into partnerships based on capacity and need. A community will come to us and say ‘hey, we’d really love to do a housing plan, but we may not have the staff or time or money’. That’s when we take on partnership with them to do all those services for free.”

Cuneo said they will do community outran, community needs assessment, community demographic, economic and housing information, housing stock survey, housing needs assessment, community planning documentation and development resources and funding strategy. She said she hopes the process will be finished in about a year.

“We put together all of my agency’s resources, whether that be single family home rehabilitation, or abandoned property funds or blight reduction programming. We put all the information about applicable programs for Watseka into chapters so it’s a one stop shop for all the opportunities the city could reach out too if they want to do that,” she said.

She said the expected outcomes are many. “Primarily identifying housing needs and wants for residents here as well as identifying funding sources. Ultimately what this comes out to is a way to strategize for planning and investments. Our agency works directly with developers. Part of our program is making sure that the cities we work with are ready for when a developer wants to do a tax credit project. We give you all the resources and write into this plan all of the incentives or evidence a developer would need to come here and get prioritized by our agency.”

The community needs assessment survey was open to residents and business owners from May to August. There were 402 responses. “That is actually the highest response rate of any community we’ve worked with,” she said.

About 80 percent of respondents live in the city and 61 percent work in the city. The highest percentage of people who responded were in the income bracket of $60,000 to $100,000. Less than 13 percent of respondents were making less than $13,000. She said moving forward they would work on getting people from the lower income brackets involved. Most respondents were in a household of two to four people.

They first asked people about COVID. “The good news is here in Watseka most of the people are not feeling the strain of the pandemic. They don’t agree that housing is becoming unaffordable or that they are losing their job,” she said. The survey did show that people are feeling that COVID has affected health and ability access necessary amenities.

In response to specific questions about housing, the results are split, she said. “Is it available for the elderly? They somewhat agree but there’s also about 24 percent of the population who feels there isn’t enough opportunity there. As well, too, we skew a little more to disagree when asked about whether the community offers options that suit a variety of lifestyles and needs. So maybe that’s pointing to a couple more diverse housing options.

“This first category strongly skews to disagreeing that the housing is in good condition. Later I’m going to show you the results of the housing stock survey and this is going to show that there’s a big difference in the perception of housing versus the actual condition of housing that we measure.”

Respondents in all categories noted that there is a need for more housing in the community, whether it is rental or home ownership. In general the respondents feel that housing is affordable in the community.

As for mobility, respondents feel that people can traveling around the community by foot, bicycle and car. It was felt that public transit opportunities are not available.

Across the board, most respondents feel that there are not adequate retail and dining opportunities. She said that this is common in the communities the agency works in. No matter how economically vital people still want more of those kinds of opportunities.

Respondents felt that they can do most of their daily errands without leaving the community and that K-12 education, affordable nutritious food, health services, pharmacy care, banking and legal services. Areas that need work included vocational training and education and job training and education. The respondents were split on if there are enough public places to gather.

People want more opportunities in the areas of nightlife, recreation, dining, shipping and retail, community involvement. “Folks always want to have more parks, restaurants, those kinds of things,” she said.

Housing, infrastructure, community events, opportunities to engage with the community, and a big emphasis on the downtown are areas that people were interested in having more opportunities.

During the meeting, several people noted that transportation opportunities are not always readily available. Reliable broadband is also still an issue, the group noted, though it was pointed out that problem is being worked on.

Workforce development is also an area that needs more attention, the group felt.

The group also noted that there is a lack of knowledge of what options are available in the community for many services, like transportation.

The housing stock survey results, Cuneo said, including volunteers collecting information bout every house, garage, shed, commercial property, etc. More than 3,000 pieces of data were collected from July to mid-November.

Of the residential properties, more than 71 percent are single family home detached with 18 percent single family home attached. Eleven percent is in the “other category, which includes mobile homes, multifamily two-units, multifamily three to four units and multifamily 5 to 19 units. Most single family homes are occupied. Only about six percent of the residential properties are vacant. Overall the exterior condition of the homes is good. Only two and a half percent of the homes were rated as poor. Only 15 homes were noted as poor. Everywhere in the city there are excellent homes and everywhere in the city there are other categories of homes, she said.

Roof conditions are doing predominately well in they city, she said. Only about four-and-a-half percent were rated as poor. Most, 72 percent were considered good. Yard conditions in the city are in very good condition, she said, at more than 82 percent.

“There’s a lot more homes that are in good to excellent condition than what the perception is,” she said.

The city’s strengths noted by the group include preschool to 12 education, community involvement, access to stores, dining and health and safety, public safety, access to community leaders, access to good parks, location compared to other areas, a low tax rate, and the public library.

The group noted that the weaknesses include lack of maternity services, poverty, lack of jobs, the area is rural, lack of commercial building opportunities, lack of space for gatherings like wedding receptions.

Those who wish to view the results and make some comments may do so by going to . The link was still open as of Nov. 22. Cuneo said it would be open for a few days.

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