Guest Columnists

Open our neighborhoods to more affordable housing

Units on Foster Road are among affordable housing options built in Iowa City, photographed on Tuesday, April 16, 2014.  (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Units on Foster Road are among affordable housing options built in Iowa City, photographed on Tuesday, April 16, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

When we talk about affordable housing, we mean housing for day-care workers and waiters. Affordable housing is important to the people in retail and service jobs who tell you to have a good day as they look forward to a 45-minute commute.

Beneficiaries include your neighbors’ kids, the empty nester from a broken marriage and the young woman with a shiny degree in sociology who’s seeking her first job.

In short, it could be you when you were younger or you when you get older.

As a commercial real estate appraiser with an urban planning degree and experience on the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission, I’ve observed what works and what doesn’t for nearly 40 years.

I can’t remember a time when it was easy to put a 12-plex in an established neighborhood. I do know of many instances where single-family homes were built next to existing apartments with absolutely no negative impact on the value of those homes or, for that matter, on the apartments.


Despite this, there is simply too much pushback from neighbors when a city attempts to encourage affordable housing in their “backyard,” even if their backyard is several blocks away.

Grants to subsidize affordable housing are geared to a points system that is at odds with this political reality. Your chances of landing funding increase when you are on a bus line, when you are near a park, when you are within easy walking distance of a grocery store, etc. In other words, when you are in a mature neighborhood.

Planning commissions take the position that it is wrong to put a family “in the middle of nowhere,” which is defined as anywhere some of these criteria are unmet.

The Peninsula in Iowa City was the middle of nowhere when it began. It is one neighborhood that combines intensive multifamily development with single-family homes. I don’t think they had a bus line when it originally was developed, and even now it is a long way from a grocery store. But the fact is that after some early missteps, it has evolved and it works.


Interestingly, the Johnson County supervisors have floated the idea of putting affordable housing on the former poor farm at the intersection of Melrose and Highway 218. Predictably, they have been chastised for being insensitive, that this is too far out, that there are no services there. According to Carolann Jensen, the COO for the Iowa Finance Authority, most people at the low end of the income spectrum have access to a car, and the lack of current public transportation is not a determining factor.

According to the Iowa DOT traffic count maps, 42,000 cars a day go through the intersection of Highway 218 and Melrose. That intersection is a five-minute commute to the largest hospital in Iowa. It is about the same distance to the Fareway and about half that to West High School. It is, in fact, a lot closer than the Peninsula.

If that is the middle of nowhere, then we need to broaden our horizons.

The poor farm is one example of land that has the potential to accommodate affordable housing. I counted an additional 103 acres of commercial land in secondary locations that have languished on the market for at least 10 years. The Iowa City P & Z recently turned down a rezoning proposal of land on Scott Boulevard that included a mix of apartments for the same tired reasons.


Meanwhile, the City Council purchased six proposed single-bedroom units on the parking lot behind City Hall — part of a larger development for $1,000,000. Similarly, to meet the affordable housing criteria, the Housing Fellowship is purchasing 12,000 square feet of land a few blocks south of Burlington for about $66 per square foot. Affordable housing begins with affordable land, and the closer you get to the central business district, the higher the land cost.


Understand that, of the 102 acres cited above, there is not one acre that would sell for more than $8 per SF. Understand that in each case, all the necessary streets, water, sewer and for the most part, water detention are in place to accommodate this development. Understand that with few exceptions, this shovel-ready land that I believe is suitable for the development of multifamily housing is paying farmland taxes. Because the state requires that properties be assessed at their current use and not their zoned use, the city fails to recoup its considerable investment in the infrastructure that supports them.

Astute planners and the boards that govern development will recognize this problem and give greater consideration to supply, demand and financial feasibility. This, more than anything, will reduce the development pressure on core neighborhoods and foster the kind of housing that enables people who work here to live here.

• Casey Cook is a real estate appraiser and former member of the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission



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