For the past ten years, Matthew 25 has very intentionally positioned ourselves in places of pain and loss in the community so that we can be bearers of hope and possibility. After the flood forced us out of Trinity United Methodist Church, we located in four other spaces before landing in a building two blocks from the river. Our location in Kingston Village gives us a front-row seat to see the amazing recovery juxtaposed with the continued struggle of our community.
As we work in the community, we still hear stories of pain. We’ve talked to families who invested all their savings into reviving their homes, leaving them little for retirement. We are working with homeowners who are still rebuilding from the flood. In the spring, when the waters often rise, especially as they did in 2016, we feel and see the panic on our neighbors faces. Many are worried and still waiting on flood protection. Some have moved away, knowing they can’t take the trauma of potential flooding again.
Despite the remaining pain, our city is making incredible progress. Unemployment is down. The tax base is up. Revitalization is happening downtown and in core neighborhoods. Beautiful new housing is being built. There is an openness to new ideas and new leadership that didn’t exist before the flood. We are a city on the move. After the flood, we said we were going to rebuild the city so that it would be even better than before, and we have.
But, our work is not done. We shouldn’t be satisfied. Instead, we have to keep pushing ourselves toward the potential that exists in front of us. Yes, we have witnessed a surge in new housing, but there are people and places being left behind. While many homes in the city have seen their assessed value climb by more than twenty percent in the last decade, many older homes in the flood zone have had their home values stagnate or diminish. The homeownership gap between whites and nonwhites of approximately forty percent is virtually unchanged in the last decade.
Some assistance is on the horizon. It is encouraging to see the city re-energizing the affordable housing commission and partnering with local banks to invest millions in existing homes through the Neighborhood Finance Corporation. The Housing Fund for Linn County continues to invest in affordable housing. These targeted investments are steps in what must be an ongoing effort to catalyze neighborhood revitalization throughout the city. One challenge is to make sure these and other investments help shrink the racial homeownership gap and stay focused on benefiting struggling families.
Another area where there is tremendous possibility is in revitalizing our food system. Cedar Rapids is internationally recognized within the food processing industry, and we worked hard to rebuild our food processing centers and food transportation systems following the flood. However, with more than fifty-percent of our students receiving free and reduced lunches, we need to make sure we are feeding our own while feeding the world.
Now is the time to think about what healthy neighborhoods with abundant fresh food look like. Matthew 25’s first-in-the-state urban farm and Cedar Rapids’ countless community gardens are a start. Fresh food in front yards, parks and widely available at schools and food banks could be next. Healthy, local food systems should be a core investment in expanding our reputation as a food city.
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Finally, and you probably knew it was coming, our recovery remains tenuous when there is no permanent flood protection. While the city is becoming a model in stormwater management that keeps water out of the river, we still can’t effectively protect ourselves from another epic surge like 2008. At a recent meeting, we were told by city officials complete flood protection still is potentially twenty years away. That is a long time. With the incredible leadership we have here in Cedar Rapids, we have to push ourselves to do better and decrease the timeline toward completion. We have to look at ways to finance flood protection more quickly. We’ve come so far. The future remains filled with possibility. Let’s keep pushing ourselves to be even better.
• Clint Twedt-Ball is executive director of Matthew 25 in Cedar Rapids.