Affordable Housing: Second chances & better processes

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Elected officials don’t often get second chances, or clear-cut strategies for complex problems. Right now Cedar Rapids City Council members have both.

Minnesota-based nonprofit CommonBond Communities has submitted an updated plan for Crestwood Ridge, a northwest side housing project that fell shy of supermajority support last fall amid outcry from neighborhood residents.

Awarded $8 million in federal tax credits through the Iowa Finance Authority to develop alongside Edgewood and Crestwood roads, Crestwood Ridge included a mix of market rate and affordable apartments, including five supportive housing units. Staff from Willis Dady was tapped to provide case management for those five tenants.

Council members rejected rezoning for the project in October, when a majority neighbors voiced concerns about area sidewalks, increased traffic, lot density and water runoff. The updated Crestwood plan addresses these issues, so the nonprofit is requesting the city forego its typical 1-year delay and reconsider the project now, before the grant expires.

We continue to support the development because it earned city support for its grant application, met the strict criteria of the competitive grant, aligns with the comprehensive plan, won the recommendation of city staff and, most importantly, fills a long-standing affordable supportive housing gap. We also remain impressed by CommonBond and its partnership with Willis Dady.

Although most national reports rate the Midwest, Iowa and Cedar Rapids as generally affordable, the reality is a lack of local housing stock has increased local demand and cost. Rental vacancy rates in the city hover around 2 percent, and more than 40 percent of area renters are cost-burdened. Many households are only one financial crisis away from added reliance on taxpayer-funded safety nets or homelessness.

To make matters worse, the Trump administration wants to cut $6.2 billion, or 13 percent, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Specifically targeted are two programs that help people secure and sustain affordable housing — Community Development Block Grants, which fund initiatives ranging from disaster aid to police engagement to anti-poverty efforts like Meals on Wheels, and the HOME Investment Partnership, which helps low-income citizens repair existing homes.

Other HUD programs related to housing are in danger as well, including rental assistance, heating and air-conditioning aid, energy-efficiency assistance and various other local government partnerships like AmeriCorps and the Interagency Council on Homelessness. The Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity and Choice Neighborhoods programs, which aim to replace distressed public housing with mixed-income development, are on the chopping block too.

Given what’s happening in Washington, you’d think Iowa lawmakers would be doing more to help communities prepare for worst-case scenarios. Instead, they are supporting similar policies and implementing laws that further erode the middle class, adding more Iowans to the list of those searching for housing and other assistance.

That’s the economic and political backdrop Cedar Rapids Council members need to consider before they once again refuse $8 million in housing tax credits, newly offered neighborhood improvements and proven affordable housing project management partners.

This is a multifaceted challenge that needs public-private coordination and public buy-in.

Healthy communities offer diverse housing options for people at all levels of the economic ladder. Business owners, retirees, farm laborers and bus drivers all need a place to live. When they can’t find one, negatives ripple out.

For instance, a lack of workforce housing impedes the ability of employers to attract talent, leaving jobs unfilled and companies thinking twice about local expansions. And, when workers can’t live near employers, they must travel further. Individual cars increase traffic and impact air quality. Alternatively, public transit faces greater demands in an ever-widening service area, which costs taxpayers.

Throughout Linn County, only eight supportive housing units are open to the public. And yet housing is the foundation for well-being — food security, economic contribution, health management, stability.

This housing gap won’t be closed if strategies are limited to owner-occupied, large-lot single-family housing — or if all options are regulated to only certain neighborhoods.

This is a test of political will we cannot afford to fail. Fortunately, the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force subcommittee on housing has recommendations:

• Expand financial incentives for development of affordable housing throughout the city

• Build community capacity for supportive services programming

• Implement ongoing landlord education efforts

• Target nuisance property owners

• Develop partnerships to revitalize aging housing stock

• Remove barriers faced by specific populations

• Strengthen and support neighborhood associations

• Coordinate and unify affordable housing efforts

While these objectives are fully and individually possible, they are more easily accomplished by first focusing on the final item.

As the task force noted “at present, there is no coordinated, collaborative, unifying body or effort that develops and implements a strategic communitywide vision for affordable housing.”

That must change. We agree with the task force that Cedar Rapids needs a group — perhaps something similar to the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition or the long-dormant Affordable Housing Commission mandated by municipal code — with the necessary political capital to drive public policy. Ideally, this group will spur additional regional opportunities.

Dr. Mary Wilcynski and Stacey Walker, who served as co-chairs of the SET Task Force, noted that the group’s recommendations were derived from discussions with several housing experts, many of whom served on the subcommittee. They aren’t commentary on any one proposal, but an attempt to establish a more comprehensive approach.

“We do know that barriers to affordable housing currently exist in our community and everyone interested in a safe, equitable and thriving community should take the challenge of affordable housing seriously,” they said as part of a joint statement.

“It is imperative that local governments work with nonprofit organizations and good developers to bring more affordable housing options to our city. … The need for safe, affordable housing is not going away, therefore it is incumbent upon leaders to act.”

Perhaps due to political aspirations or concern about the next election, needed and initially supported Cedar Rapids housing projects have been successfully derailed by small groups of citizens. Each time this happens, the city’s relationships with established housing developers erode, more groups are emboldened to read from the same noisy playbook, and the diverse housing supply needed for the city to thrive is delayed.

Whether the updated Crestwood development stands or falls, it shouldn’t have come to this. Taxpayers shell out thousands each year for professionals who use council-approved tools like the comprehensive plan and city ordinances to determine details like landscaping and water retention.

Given the inability of council to consider recent housing projects by the standards of merit they established, we are no longer convinced the current system provides a level playing field for all developers or projects. Time for changes. Let’s start with a fearless and politically-saavy team committed to meeting the city’s long-term and diversified housing goals.

• Comments: (319) 398-8469; lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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