“We didn’t know much about housing, but we did work with children and families who didn’t have it and we saw firsthand how it affected their relationships and progress, “said Jim Ernst, retired president and CEO of Four Oaks.
Ten years ago, in 2007, Four Oaks took a leap and helped create a new nonprofit called the Affordable Housing Network, Inc. (AHNI). Although the anniversary is being recognized on Thursday, May 25, the agency will be marking its 10-year milestone over the next few months with activities, news stories and a statewide housing discussion. A celebration and banquet are planned for September.
In the beginning, Ernst was approached by a group of community leaders to purchase two properties from a struggling housing group called Midwest America Housing Partnership (MAHP). They approached Ernst because Four Oaks was a financially stable and well-run nonprofit with a clear mission to help families succeed.
“Our first purchases from MAHP were Cedar Valley and Agin Court apartments in Cedar Rapids,” said current Four Oaks president and CEO, Anne Gruenewald. “We took small steps to see if we could make it work.”
And since that time it has worked. Over the last 10 years, AHNI has grown from 202 owned housing units and 70 managed units to 692 owned units and 143 managed units.
But AHNI’s growth hasn’t always been strategic. After purchasing the Brown Apartments from MAHP for the purposes of developing, constructing and managing a 15-unit building, the 2008 floods hit Cedar Rapids. Replacement housing for flood victims was needed and if Cedar Valley was to be a permanent home for them, it needed a face-lift. AHNI applied for I-JOBS (state) support to remodel almost 200 units.
“In 2009 as construction began for Cedar Valley, a group of elderly community leaders approached us to consider managing and eventually owning Hawthorne Hills,” said longtime AHNI board member Gary Becker. “These men, including the late Dr. Percy Harris, created Hawthorne Hills to house those who struggle with mental health and disability issues.” AHNI applied and was granted I-JOBS money for flood replacement housing at Hawthorne Hills to remodel another 200 units.
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Also in 2009, AHNI became involved in a partnership called Block by Block with Matthew 25 and the United Methodist Church. Their goal was to remodel and rebuild flood-affected homes, literally block by block, on the west side of the Cedar River. In three years’ time, this project was able to help more than 300 homeowners rebuild, resettle and revitalize their old neighborhood with the help of generous community and state donations.
In 2011, AHNI worked with Community Housing Initiatives (CHI) and the Iowa Finance Authority (IFA) to build Sugar Creek, a housing project near Cedar Rapids’ Ellis Golf Course. The 20 affordable homes have helped dozens of people rent first and then own a single-family home, the goal of all three partners.
“We lost single-family rental homes in the flood, and for the most part, those were replaced by high-density apartments,” said Sugar Creek builder Kyle Skogman who was quoted in The Gazette. “This project replaced what we lost.”
While most of the construction in Cedar Rapids was concentrated in flood damaged zones from 2008-12, an east-side neighborhood situated above the flood line was deteriorating. Properties in Wellington Heights had been declining for years and the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association (WHNA) wanted to do something about it, but didn’t have the capacity for the heavy-lift.
In 2012, Four Oaks unveiled an innovative and studied approach to address children in crisis, called TotalChild. The approach addressed children’s basic needs to achieve successful adulthood; one of those needs was permanent housing. Four Oaks and AHNI set a five-year goal of acquiring 100 properties for remodeling and rebuilding in order to preserve and encourage single-family ownership in a core neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. In May 2017, Four Oaks and AHNI reached their goal.
Other accomplishments in the last 10 years include: acquiring the Geneva Tower (183 units) in downtown Cedar Rapids in 2013 and working with the tenants on healthy choices, mental health counseling and better medical decisions, managing the Area Substance Abuse Council’s Way Home property which is special apartments for those recovering from drug addiction, and starting the Monroe Apartments project — repurposing the vacant Monroe Elementary in Cedar Rapids into 19 mixed-rate apartments.
We have reason to celebrate. At a recent AHNI board meeting, one staff reminded the board that he lives by AHNI’s mission: to provide decent, safe and sustainable housing which promotes stability for families and individuals and creates community. The body of work the Four Oaks and AHNI staff has done has been a tremendous accomplishment over the last 10 years. We thank them and our charitable community.
• Karl Hoffman is board chair of Affordable Housing Network, Inc. Anne Gruenewald is president and CEO of Four Oaks.