116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Public money should be used for the public good when it comes to allocating $28 million in federal relief funds, community activists told the Cedar Rapids City Council Tuesday.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Sunrise Movement and Advocates for Social Justice members urged the council at its Tuesday meeting to consider input from community members who still are grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s derecho as the council prepares to allocate $28 million from the federal American Rescue Plan, the nationwide $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan Congress passed in March.
Leslie Neely has just presented our coalition’s pledge for council. City Council must commit to building 250 net zero affordable housing units. pic.twitter.com/LU0gPhx6sU— Iowa CCI (@iowacci) July 13, 2021
The city will coordinate how funds are spent with Linn County, which will receive $44 million.
Leslie Neely, co-founder of the Advocates for Social Justice, said the group also requests that the council establish a task force composed of community members, not-for-profits and city staff to address affordable housing.
The activists proposed the creation of a comprehensive plan to use $10 million to create 250 carbon-neutral affordable housing units throughout the city.
Neely said the groups ask that the task force provide such recommendations to council within 90 days, and act on those recommendations within the following 30 days.
“Together, we can build a stronger community to heal from these devastating times,” Neely said.
Many people are “in crisis” following the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, with the effects of the derecho exacerbating the hardships citizens face, Iowa CCI organizer Jaime Izaguirre told The Gazette. The activists want the council to keep in mind those who are disproportionately affected by the two disasters and to center equity in their funding allocation.
“The people in Cedar Rapids are struggling, and so I think there's got to be some guiding principles for how this money needs to be used,” Izaguirre said.
“It needs to focus on universal programs that working, struggling people can access with ease. And then it can't go to big corporations, and it can't be used to shore up city budgets.”
The groups conducted a survey for residents to offer opinions on how the funding should be used. Of the initial 138 respondents, 102 — nearly 74 percent — indicated housing is either the first or second top priority. According to Iowa CCI, relief would include rental and mortgage assistance, financial help with derecho repairs and expanded affordable housing.
“The people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions,” Izaguirre said. “I think the people that are struggling know what kind of relief would help them, whether that’s help with food on the table or rent to have a house over their head, a roof over their head.”
City Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt noted information about the city’s plans for allocating the funding to four areas:
- Workforce training and education
- West side flood control
- Revenue loss.
“While these are really broad categories, it is really important that we align these with our local needs,” Pratt said.
But Pratt said the city also has learned that housing is the “biggest, most critical need that we're seeing in our community” through its online survey efforts and door-to-door surveys in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, which reached more than 900 residents.
Additional details will be shared at a council meeting in late July or early August, before council approval of how funding is allocated, Pratt said.
“We’re a very resource-rich community in many ways, so encouraging those nonprofits to work together and bring the knowledge that they have of the needs is a key component of this,” Mayor Brad Hart said.
Regarding the creation of a task force to examine more development of affordable housing, Hart noted the city already has an affordable housing commission. Because of that, Hart told The Gazette he did not envision the creation of a task force, but said he would work with city staff to examine affordable housing developments already in the works and see how Cedar Rapids officials could expand on those efforts.
“If there's some thought that we need additional information or input, then we'll figure out the best way to do that,” Hart said.
Council member Ashley Vanorny urged consideration of allocating some funding to support the development of senior centers, but said she appreciated the city’s dedication to addressing affordable housing.
“Certainly that's our No. 1,” Vanorny said. “We've heard that from the community as well, and we're standing in unison with that concept.”
Going door to door is the best way to understand community needs, council member Tyler Olson said, as city staff provide opportunities for people to share input on the priorities the council sets with allocating this funding.
“There are a lot of people who can’t make it to a public meeting at a specific time, can’t answer online surveys,” Olson said.
“And so I think that door to door in particular really shows your dedication to getting out and making sure we understand what the grassroots needs are in the community.”
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