What they're thinking: Iowa City mayor talks affordable housing

Affordable Housing Action Plan adopted to address issue

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IOWA CITY — The City Council last month adopted an Affordable Housing Action Plan to help spur more affordable housing in the city.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight this summer when tenants of the Rose Oaks apartment complex, some of the most inexpensive units in the city, were told their leases would not be renewed because of renovations. The council voted to provide more than $50,000 to help those residents move.

Mayor Jim Throgmorton, a voting member of the council, discusses the challenges associated with the need for affordable housing and what the city is doing to help.

Q: What is the need like for affordable housing in Iowa City?

A: “There’s data showing that over the past at least 15 years, probably longer than that, median household income has remained stable but the cost of housing has increased significantly. So we’re steadily seeing an increasing problem with regard to the affordability of housing in general.

“And we’re not alone. Every major city I know anything about is experiencing roughly equivalent challenges in regard to the affordability of housing. So it’s a general problem.

“The problem is more acute for low to moderate income households, especially lower income households, who in the lingo are called ‘cost-burdened households.’ In other words, they’re having to spend an increasingly larger percentage of their limited incomes on housing.”

Q: How has the need for affordable housing changed in recent years?

A: “I mean the problem has gotten worse. The second change I’ve seen, well, you probably know there is a significant amount of housing development in Coralville and especially North Liberty.

“There’s a substantial amount in Iowa City, too, but now there is an increasing proportion of new housing development that’s taking place out there and Iowa City has no control over that whatsoever. But we’re part of a regional housing market so it’s a regional problem but we can’t, in Iowa City, deal with the problem at a regional scale. We can only deal with it at an Iowa City scale, which is what we’re doing.”

Q: What is the Affordable Housing Action Plan and how might it help the issue in Iowa City?

A: “It contains at least 12 specific elements that are all designed to achieve a mix of three goals. One is to improve the affordability of housing in Iowa City. The second is to improve the affordability of housing for housing for low- to moderate-income households in Iowa City. And the third is to help the school district achieve better balance in its schools by achieving a better socio-economic mix among our neighborhoods. So those three things.

“One thing that we agreed to do was direct half a million dollars to the Johnson County Housing Trust Fund to help them increase the supply of affordable housing, to develop affordable housing projects. So they can use that money to leverage other money, basically.

“We also decided to create a line item in our budget, which means a certain number will go into the budget every year, for affordable housing. So some of it, half, is going to go to the Johnson County Housing Trust Fund.”

Q: How does a community benefit from its city investing resources into affordable housing?

A: “Well, right now if the trend continues, low- to moderate-income households will be priced out of the Iowa City market. That means people who work in service occupations will not be able to afford to live in Iowa City. And lots of other people.

“It’s just a large portion of the population that simply will not be able to live in Iowa City, so that’s completely inconsistent with what our council’s overall strategic plan in which calls for Iowa City to be an inclusive, just and sustainable city.”

Q: What kind of changes can the average Iowa City resident expect to see in the near future?

A: “There could be some suggested modifications in the kinds of structures that could be built in our core neighborhoods. There’s a concept called the ‘missing middle’ that applies. The missing middle refers to housing types that are not single family detached houses, not large apartment buildings but something in between.

There are ways to insert those kinds of missing middle housing types into surrounding neighborhoods in a way that doesn’t look any different or at least not significantly different from housing that’s already there, but enable other people to live.”

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