'Community Conversation' series takes on affordable housing

Willis Dady director: 'The private market does want to be involved'

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The issue of affordable housing isn’t going away. That was the message Saturday of Dale Todd, a developer and community leader who helped moderate a discussion on the topic.

“You either deal with (affordable housing) now, or you live with the negative impact that it could potentially have on your community down the road,” Todd said.

The meeting was part of a series of community conversations that leaders of the former Safe, Equitable, and Thriving Communities Task Force have organized for this summer. The goal is to engage the community on key issues such as public safety, affordable housing and education.

Panelists at Saturday’s event included Jeff Capps, executive director of Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity; Laura O’Leary, president of Landlords of Linn County; Lisa Gavin, staff attorney at Iowa Legal Aid; Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services; and Jennifer Pratt, director of community development for the city of Cedar Rapids.

Among the topics that came up was the government housing assistance program known as Section 8.

“There was more time spent on Section 8 than I would have guessed and particularly on the landlord frustrations with it,” Trepp said afterward.

Despite that frustration, Trepp said she was struck by how much the landlords “do want to work on these issues.”

“The private market does want to be involved,” she said.

Even though there was agreement on the importance of affordable housing, definitions varied among the panelists about what qualifies as affordable.

“Our definition is probably different from the other people on the panel because we do have to look at our community as a whole,” the city’s Pratt said. “Affordable housing is having options for housing at all price points, but when you ask the general public about affordable housing, they’re thinking about folks at the lower income levels, and the reason why that focus is so important is because for people at the higher end of the price point, their options can be solved by the private market ... whereas for folks at the lower income level, there is that gap. It’s not possible for the private sector to solve that.”

Trepp had a slightly different take on it.

“When we talk about affordability, we look at housing that won’t cost more than 30 percent of someone’s income,” she said.

Regardless of the definition of affordability, Trepp stressed the importance of addressing the issue.

“It comes back to the question of who are we as a community. Do we really think that everybody deserves opportunity or do we think if you’re born in this ZIP code and in this house you deserve opportunity, but if you weren’t, I’m sorry too bad for you?” Trepp said. “That’s at the root what affordable housing is about, is leveling the playing field and saying everyone growing up in our community or moving here for employment should be able to have nutritious food, have a job if they can work, and that can’t be done if they don’t have a place to live.”

Two more community conversations are scheduled for this summer. The next one, set for Aug. 12, will focus on economic opportunities. At the final event, community members will be invited to determine which SET Task Force recommendations to help bring to fruition.

“It’s evident that there needs to be a discussion about how the SET Task Force implements its vision and who’s going to drive the public policy discussion and implementation of the plan,” Todd said.

l Comments: (319) 368-8538; elianna.novitch@thegazette.com

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