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Cedar Rapids affordable housing project faces long odds

Project needs three-fourth majority for necessary rezoning

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CEDAR RAPIDS — A lack of support from Cedar Rapids City Council could torpedo an affordable housing complex with special accommodations for the homeless on the city’s northwest side.

Advocates say the complex is needed in the community, but neighbors have cited concerns about drainage, traffic, loss in property value and potentially disruptive residents in the building.

The fate of the $9 million Crestwood Ridge Apartments rests with City Council, which will be asked to approve a necessary rezoning possibly later this month.

“We are explaining our development plan, explaining how we are addressing concerns with data and through an environmental study.” said Justin Eilers, housing development manager with the complex’s developer, Commonbond Communities. “There is no guarantee, but we feel we are giving all the information that is needed.”

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and council members Justin Shields and Scott Olson said they don’t support or are leaning against the rezoning request. Due to neighborhood petition, the project needs a three-quarter majority from the nine-member board — meaning three ‘no’ votes would spell doom.

When it meets on Tuesday, the City Council will consider setting a public hearing on the matter for Sept. 27, with votes likely to follow.

The Project

Commonbond Communities, with support from Willis Dady Emergency Shelter, proposes building Crestwood Ridge Apartments at 1200 Edgewood Road NW. The Iowa Finance Authority, as part of a Housing for Homeless demonstration, awarded the project $8 million in federal tax credits.

The complex would include four market-rate units, 36 “affordable” units for people earning 60 percent or less of the median household income, and five “supportive-housing” units for people earning 30 percent or less of the median income.

The supportive-housing units would provide permanent housing for homeless families or individuals, and it comes with access to an on-site office staffed by Willis Dady to provide support services.

The Issue

The City Planning Commission, an advisory body to the City Council, rejected a rezoning request in April, and neighbors collected 215 signatures on a petition against the rezoning.

Because more than 20 percent of property owners within 200 feet of the rezoning area resisted, state code requires a three-fourths supermajority vote to pass the measure, explained Joe Mailander, Cedar Rapids development services manager. Seven out of nine would need to vote to rezone, or in the event of a recusal, the threshold would be six of eight, he said.

The petition cites more traffic, which could impede flow to and from Jackson Elementary and Fire Station No. 3, overload the sanitary sewer system and stormwater drainage, decrease property values and provide little in the way of a play area for children who would move into the complex.

The Location

The proposed development is located in a residential area along Edgewood with intermittent sidewalks. Jackson Elementary is within a close walk.

The complex also is on Cedar Rapids Transit Route 1, which goes downtown, Ellis Boulevard NW, O Avenue NW and 16th Avenue NW, which has a Fairway Grocery. The closest grocery store — Johnson Avenue Hy-Vee — is about two miles away and accessible with a bus transfer.

Betty Daniels, a housing specialist with Waypoint, a center for women’s and families’ services, said access to school, grocery shopping and transportation typically are the top three needs for lower-income housing. Dispelling myths about the character of low income residents also is essential, she said.

“It is a little far out (geographically), but most humans are resourceful,” she said. “They adapt to where they go.”

Commonbond Communities’s Eilers noted they’ve tried to address neighbors’ concerns. The plan includes adding sidewalks, and bioswales and other stormwater improvements should improve drainage, he said. He also said it is a misconception that residents will be on foot.

“The on-site bus stop will be a good resource, but the vast majority of people will have cars as their primary transportation,” he said.

The developer

Commonbond is a 40-year-old not-for-profit that builds affordable housing communities in the Midwest. The organization owns or manages 105 properties and 5,542 affordable rental units in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In Cedar Rapids, the organization took over the 66-unit, senior-housing complex, The Meadows, 1030 Memorial Drive SE, in 2012. It built and operates the 40-unit Unity Square in Waterloo, which includes nine units dedicated to the homeless, Eilers said.

City positions

Mayor Ron Corbett: “I haven’t made any final decision, but at this point I’m leaning ‘no.’ You look at the traffic on Edgewood. I think the traffic issues are valid and the size of the project and how it fits in the neighborhood. There are valid concerns people have brought forward.”

Council member Ralph Russell: “I think there is a need for a facility like that. I’ve visited the site. At this point, I think pluses outweigh the minuses.”

Ann Poe: “I’d like to reserve comments until the council meeting.”

Council member Scott Olson: “I’ve received numerous emails and phone calls. Commonbond is a well-run organization. They’ve addressed all the issues on the site. They’ve addressed concerns of the neighbors. They tried to do a good job. But I’d say a super majority of residents in my district are against it, so I will have to vote no.”

Council member Susie Weinacht: “My understanding is the developer has a good track record and there’s been good questions from neighbors. If questions can be mitigated or addressed, I am not sure what the actual issue is. From my personal point of view, I have to say I’m disappointed in any behavior that sends a message — beyond the fair questions — about not being supportive of those of us who are most vulnerable. There’s a place for everyone.”

Council member Pat Shey: “I support that. I hear complaints about traffic, but it’s a good project. It’s a good location. Nothing else is going to be built there. I support it.”

Council member Scott Overland: “I’m supportive of it. I’ve watched info in the media, I’ve driven over and looked around. I’ve talked to the organization and done research of Commonbond. I think it’s a good development for the city of Cedar Rapids. I think when it’s built neighbors will be fine with it.”

Council member Justin Shields: “I originally was supportive of it, but I am having some severe reservations about it. That’s an area over there where there’s a lot of drainage problems. I haven’t seen to my satisfaction where they are addressing those issues.”

Council member Kris Gulick: Gulick, a certified public accountant, recused himself, citing a client relationship.

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