What will it take to build support for affordable housing?
Many obstacles face affordable housing projects. Developers must secure funding, allocate resources, work within the boundaries of strategic plans and navigate local housing markets. Yet, even when those challenges are perfectly met, nearby residents often continue to voice objections.
The basis for these pleas of caution vary. Some are grounded in valid neighborhood concerns like traffic pattens or stormwater drainage. Other times complaints appear rooted in negative stereotypes about housing that’s affordable and who it helps. And since the drumbeat of neighborhood opposition so often rises late in the development process, it can be difficult for decision-makers to sift through emotionally-charged communications and vote based on facts.
A year ago, many Cedar Rapids residents would have brushed aside such scenarios as something that happens in larger cities. But in recent months proposed affordable housing investments totaling $26.9 million have garnered support from city staff only to later drown in a deluge of public opposition.
Maybe there’s a better way.
PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
A report by the Polk County Housing Trust Fund details negative and unreliable public perceptions of affordable housing. The group notes that such perceptions are a sign that people care about their neighborhood and that many established views on affordable developments are based on reports of worst-case properties — such as Chicago’s massive and now demolished Cabrini Green — or fictional accounts portrayed on television.
“The challenge is to get people to understand that affordable housing doesn’t have to be like that,” according to report authors.
Although studies have found no causality between affordable housing and increased crime, it’s a persistent misconception.
There’s a belief that affordable housing is unattractive, cheaply built and poorly maintained, and that the presence of such properties negatively impact neighborhood property values. Yet most of us drive by housing built to be affordable each day without realizing it. Some research suggests affordable housing can increase neighborhood property values.
Finally, some residents hold an ideological position that affordable housing recipients do not deserve assistance. Instead of understanding that affordable housing is simply shelter priced to match a certain percentage of a family’s income regardless of ongoing market forces, the perception is that all tenants are recipients of direct government assistance like Section 8 housing vouchers. Statistics make clear the vast majority of working Iowans — police officers, teachers, secretaries — as well as the broader community benefit from housing costs that require no more than 30 percent of annual income.
As Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz told attendees at a recent housing forum, “We know, as city government, when housing instability is addressed and solved, we have more people in the job pool, more people paying property taxes and a decrease in crime.”
TALE OF TWO COUNTIES
Linn and Johnson counties are in similar situations when it comes to affordable housing. Both are seeing larger percentages of older residents, many of whom are constrained by fixed incomes. The two counties and their respective cities are working to attract and maintain a workforce that sustains existing business and attracts new industries. Both have affordable housing stock that doesn’t meet current needs.
But while elected officials in Linn’s largest city have mostly cast aside opportunities to increase affordable housing, those in Johnson have embraced not only individual projects but broader policies mandating further development.
The difference appears to be that Johnson, largely due to advocacy work by the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition, has reached critical mass.
“One of the big changes I’ve seen as a result of consistent outreach by advocates of affordable housing is an influx of non-traditional supporters,” said Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin.
Fruin says that churches, nonprofits and others who have always been supporters of affordable housing have benefited from supportive arguments made by local and regional economic development groups.
“When groups that have previously focused mainly on chasing smokestacks begin to speak up about workforce housing, that makes a difference because it’s a message that appeals to a different audience,” he said.
In Iowa City this relatively new partnership of advocates isn’t merely showing up in support of this or that project, they’ve maintained a consistent presence throughout the community regardless of what was on the next council agenda.
NEW VIEWS IN CEDAR RAPIDS
The Cedar Rapids community also will soon receive a non-traditional boost. Using a grant from the National Association of Realtors, the Cedar Rapids Area Association of Realtors has partnered with several local nonprofits to plan a bus tour of area affordable housing options.
“This will offer valuable information for elected officials and others who are called upon to make decisions about housing in the Cedar Rapids area,” said Renae Forsyth-Christy, a Realtor with Skogman, past president of the local association, liaison between the Marion and Cedar Rapids civil rights commissions and originator of the idea for the bus tour.
It was her personal experiences, professionally and through volunteer work in the community, that prompted her to explore the effort.
“I think there is a negative perception of affordable housing, and also of the people who live in affordable housing. Shining a light on what already exists in our community and allowing those organizations involved in affordable housing to speak directly to decision-makers might result in better understanding between all the groups involved,” she said.
Two tours have been established with the grant. Both will take place on May 25 and, because space is limited, are by invitation only. Organizers circulated invitations to several area city government officials, nonprofit executives, economic development advocates and related community leaders.
Sally Scott, executive director of the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition, said that if the positive results of similar, smaller-scale projects by her organization are indicative, the Cedar Rapids project will meet its goal.
“The limitation, of course, is that you can only fit so many people on a bus,” she said with a laugh. “But this type of outreach — of showing people in the community what affordable housing looks like and who lives there — has been a very effective tool. So many commented that if we hadn’t pointed out which properties were built to be affordable they would have not have known.”
One day of bus tours, regardless of how well-intentioned, cannot be expected to reshape community sentiments on housing. But it can begin the journey.
With millions in community investment hanging in the balance, Cedar Rapids deserves housing decisions based on current realities, not preconceived notions. To get there, elected officials must have opportunities to replace negative images with existing positives.
We hope they all choose to get on the bus for affordable housing.
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