City manager: Cedar Rapids must not give up on homeless housing options

Housing forum focuses on innovative ways to provide supportive and affordable housing

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Finding housing options for low-income residents, particularly the homeless, must continue to be a focus, Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said during a housing forum on Wednesday.

The forum came weeks after Cedar Rapids City Council, under pressure from neighbors, rejected Crestwood Ridge Apartments, an affordable-housing proposal providing five units along with support services for the chronically homeless, despite $8 million in aid through federal tax credits.

“We need to keep looking for opportunities,” Pomeranz said during a break in the forum. “That wasn’t the right site. We need to find locations in Cedar Rapids for low-cost options but also options for homeless. It was turned down by the city council for many good reasons, but we don’t want to give up.”

Four Oaks and the Affordable Housing Network Inc. put on the Cedar Rapids Housing Forum on Wednesday at the Kirkwood Education Center in Cedar Rapids. Those agencies lead the Partners United for Supportive Housing in Cedar Rapids, or PUSH-CR, which is funded by a five-year federal demonstration grant dedicated to “proving people in supportive housing live more stable and productive lives.”

Pomeranz was the opening speaker at the event, attended by some 75 people.

During his presentation, Pomeranz noted Cedar Rapids doesn’t own traditional public housing and relies on partnerships with the private sector for affordable housing options. City government has to be part of the solution, though, because adequate housing reduces crime and improves quality of life for all, he said.

Creating housing opportunities requires collaboration and innovation from local government, not-for-profits, the private sector and members of the community, he said.

Low-income housing projects, such as the Crestwood Ridge Apartments rejected in October, can be met with resistance for one reason or another. Creating housing opportunities requires open minds, Pomeranz said.

“We see some of the reaction in some of the neighborhoods to opportunities for the homeless,” Pomeranz said. “We want to make sure we work with the community to open up minds and drive education, so we improve and increase the level of comfort with the kinds of housing opportunities I think all of us want to promote.”

Liz Mathis, a Democratic state senator from Robins and the community engagement director at Four Oaks who helped organize the event, said providing affordable housing alone is not enough. A support network is a critical component, she said.

“You can’t just place someone who is chronically homeless in affordable housing and expect success,” Mathis said. “We don’t have a system. We have affordable housing and case workers.”

Mathis hopes to introduce legislation in the upcoming 2017 session to establish a study group among advocates from the fields of housing and mental health, public safety and education as well as officials from the Iowa Finance Authority and the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services. They would examine a systematic approach to supportive housing that included creating a structure and carving out funding.

Tracey Achenbach, Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County executive director, spoke during a panel discussion about promising-looking initiatives involving government entities to support affordable housing.

Iowa City asked a developer not including affordable housing to pay a $1 million fee in lieu of that, and used that money to start an affordable housing fund, from which 50 percent will go to the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County, she said. Johnson County Supervisors also have allocated funding to affordable housing.

“The decision-makers — the city council members and board of supervisors — really understood there is a need for affordable housing and it was not being met by the market itself,” Archenbach said.

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