Busting myths about affordable housing and the people who live there

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It’s a scenario that plays out again and again, in every corner of The Corridor: a developer announces plans to create affordable housing units outside “those” neighborhoods where such units already are relatively plentiful, and neighbors start complaining.

The torpedoing last month of a 45-unit, mixed-income housing complex along Edgewood Road in Cedar Rapids was only the most recent example. Under pressure from residents, city council members decided to scuttle the project — and give up the $8 million grant that would have all but paid for it — rather than pursue simple remedies to the traffic and wastewater concerns that were the basis of public complaints.

Back to square one, then. The need for affordable housing remains. To keep up with demand, someone, somewhere, will need to build more than 600 affordable units within city limits within the next three years, according to the city’s own housing survey. So what’s stopping them? Backlash from a misinformed public can’t be helping. Simply put, a lot of what people think they know about affordable housing is wrong. Here, we address a few common myths:

MYTH: AFFORDABE HOUSING WILL DRIVE DOWN MY PROPERTY VALUES

In fact, according to the National Association of Realtors, there is little evidence that sales prices of single-family homes suffer from a proximity to low-income housing. Most studies of this question show no long-term negative impact to property values. Some studies even show an increase in value, according to the group.

MYTH: IT WILL LOWER TEST SCORES AND EDUCATIONAL QUALITY IN MY CHILD’S SCHOOL

In fact, a lack of affordable housing may already be bringing down test scores and using precious instructional resources in your children’s school. Housing instability has a dramatic impact on students’ learning and attendance. Frequent moves add stress and make it more difficult for students to keep up with schoolwork. Changing schools because of a change of address leads to gaps in learning that significantly impact that child’s — and your children’s — school experience. Safe, affordable and stable housing is a critical key to family stability that enables students to take root and thrive.

MYTH: IT WILL INCREASE CRIME IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD.

This one is a two-parter. First, it confuses affordable housing with subsidized housing. Affordable housing is just that — modestly priced housing that someone working a low-wage job will be able to afford. That’s why it sometimes is called “workforce housing,” because that’s what most residents are: workers. They’re in jobs or professions that don’t pay high wages. They may be service workers, or young professionals just starting out.

Secondly, while research has shown some weak and limited correlation between crime and subsidized housing (government-assisted housing for individuals and families with little or no income) this myth gets the cause and effect all wrong. Researchers have shown that it’s much more common for communities to push subsidized developments into already dangerous and marginal neighborhoods, putting those already vulnerable households at further risk.

MYTH: IT WILL LOOK “CHEAP” AND UGLY.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to pick out a new affordable development in any neighborhood. That’s because, as Habitat for Humanity has pointed out, all the design and construction standards that apply to any new construction apply to affordable housing projects. If the project is partially paid for by public money, they’ll likely have to comply with additional restrictions and meet higher standards than would an unsubsidized project.

Myth: If we ignore the need for affordable housing, it will simply go away.

In fact, our communities always have and always will have a need for decent, safe and affordable housing. Planning for it will increase neighborhood stability, support a necessary workforce and enhance hundreds of families’ quality of life. Without it, young people and families will continue to move away or be forced to live into specific tracts which will stretch the limits of other public services, like transit.

SO WHAT’S NEXT?

Lack of affordable housing is hardly a problem that’s limited to Cedar Rapids, the Corridor or the state of Iowa. Groups throughout the country are battling over a meager pile of taxpayer dollars to offset local costs. That also means there are plenty of positive examples to follow.

In Minnesota, the replacement of affordable housing with market-rate units prompted creation of a first-of-its-kind $25 million regional fund for preservation efforts. Run through the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, advocates believe the fund could result in a voluntary rent-control system that will keep gentrifying areas of the Twin Cities available to people of more modest incomes.

Commonbond Communities, which recently lost that $8 million grant from the Iowa Finance Authority when Cedar Rapids officials refused to rezone city-owned land for a proposed mixed-income housing complex, has partnered with private investors to complete a $16 million acquisition of an apartment and townhome complex without any government subsidies.

The City of Seattle, WA expects its developer linkage fee to be fully rolled out next year, and for it to provide $196 million during the next decade for affordable housing. Denver pairs linkage fees with local taxes.

A Sacramento, CA initiative known as “In Downtown” promises 10,000 mixed-income housing units in the city’s core — roughly 40 percent earmarked for low-wage workers and the homeless. The plan is underway because it earned support from a coalition of business groups, developers, homeless service organization and land use policy experts.

What each of these areas have developed — and what the metro area and the Corridor haven’t — is critical mass. Moving the conversation forward takes more than a good idea, it takes people capable of harnessing and projecting community and political will.

Ideas are bubbling up that might address that lack. Dale Todd, a local housing developer who chairs a housing subcommittee for The Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force — a 19-member group formed late last year to address gun violence in Cedar Rapids — says his committee may recommend the formation of some kind of affordable housing entity that would span political boundaries and bridge non-profit silos, a group of people capable of promoting change who will view the issue across the metro area.

“More important than what it looks like, or who operates it, the group must have key community leaders that understand the problem and are unwilling to take no for an answer,” Todd said.

It’s an intriguing idea, worth pursuing.

Everyone advocating for affordable housing or an end to homelessness knows that current approaches aren’t working. A uniform, cross-jurisdictional approach could provide the alignment, coordination and muscular oversight that’s lacking in this discordant, nonprofit-driven system.

But regardless of the specific approaches, one thing is certain — affordable housing is an issue The Corridor must address, soon.

And we must do it based on the facts.

• Gazette editorials reflect the consensus opinion of The Gazette Editorial Board. Share your comments and ideas with us: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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