By Michelle Henderson
When the Shalom Center, one of Bloomington’s most important shelters for people experiencing homelessness, was first located at the First United Methodist Church in 2000, we had only one room to provide space for our guests to gather and gain access to services and resources during the day. One of my favorite fellow board members then was John Hamilton, who was clearly dedicated to meeting the needs of people experiencing poverty and homelessness.
Now, 20 years later, the Shalom Center (now part of a larger not-for-profit organization called Beacon) has grown to fill its own building, a house/resource center which has become too small to provide enough space for the constantly rising number of guests needing services. This expanding need for shelter, made worse by pandemic conditions, has led to people camping in parks and in wooded areas close to downtown. The most recent development was the late-night removal of tents from Seminary Square Park to discourage overnight camping and daytime congregation.
There clearly is an affordable housing crisis in Bloomington, resulting in an ever-growing need for rental space affordable for residents who are struggling with poverty and lack of resources. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the March on Washington, he described a “fierce urgency of now.”
Bloomington is experiencing a fierce urgency to protect and provide for our struggling citizens. Our Mayor and our City Council representatives need to focus their funding and legislation to support those in desperate need of shelter.
City Council members Kate Rosenbarger and Matt Flaherty have been outspoken in their support for changing the city zoning to allow multiplexes in the core neighborhoods, citing a need for workforce housing. I would argue that there is a far more urgent and desperate need to protect the currently existing affordable housing for our low-income citizens.
The old houses near downtown have always been the least expensive rentals in the area and have allowed residents with lower-paying jobs or those on a fixed income to afford rent. Under the proposed UDO zoning map, those small, affordable houses will be permitted to be torn down and replaced by expensive duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes and even larger apartment buildings (conditionally).
The older houses, which can be rented for around $400 a month per bedroom, are at risk of being replaced by multiplexes which, based on similar new construction near downtown, will rent for $1000-$2000 a month per bedroom. Minimum wage workers will be displaced and unable to find affordable housing close enough to walk to work downtown…and will be on the path to ending up at the Shalom Center needing services.
Our elected officials should not change our city zoning to provide new housing for middle-income professional workers when it comes at a huge cost to minimum-wage workers who are living paycheck to paycheck in housing with the lowest rents currently available near the city center. Those struggling citizens should be the highest priority for our public officials who were elected to serve the greater good of all who live in our community.
I urge Mayor Hamilton and the City Council to protect the affordable existing housing in the core neighborhoods in support of the low-income residents who live there. We must work together as a community to protect existing affordable housing and to provide additional affordable housing so that there will be no need for tents in the future.
Michelle Henderson is a founding board member of the Shalom
Community Center, and current board member of Bloomington Restorations Inc., which has provided affordable housing to low-income residents of Monroe County since 1999. She has a Ph.D. in social justice education from Indiana University.