116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
President Joe Biden is sending Cedar Rapids $28 million as part of the American Rescue Plan. It’s a big chunk of change. So naturally a lot of folks have ideas on how best to spend it in a city not only hit with a pandemic but also that derecho you might have heard about.
City officials have laid out broad brush plans for how they’d like to spend the money. At a presentation during this past week’s City Council meeting, staff said the money should be focused on four areas, housing and social services, workforce training and education, west side flood protection and revenue losses sustained through disasters both viral and stormy.
Under housing and social services, the city hopes to seek proposals for housing projects in cooperation with Linn County, which is getting $44 million from the rescue plan. There would be money for the PATCH Program helping property owners make a still long list of derecho repairs. And the city would seek an expanded, permanent home for the west side Ladd Library, which would also serve as an opportunity center providing access to various services.
Other dollars would be used to address workforce shortages through education and training programs, partnering with the Pathways Program at Kirkwood Community College and the Small Business Development Center.
Using ARP dollars on west side flood protection, the city argues, addresses the inequity caused by the federal government only funding levees and flood walls on the east side of the river. As for revenue losses, a chunk would go to local nonprofits who saw a plunge in aid from the hotel/motel tax.
Officials say they gathered input informing their plans from local groups such as Waypoint that are coordinating recovery services, a community impact survey done in coordination with Linn County and the United Way and door-to-door conversations with 950 residents.
“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 during a brief discussion after the presentation. Hart is seeking reelection this fall.
“Much more to come,” Hart said, speaking to the fact that more specific details of the plan will be coming in the next few weeks.
So is everyone singing from the city’s hymnal? Not exactly.
At the same meeting, a trio of groups, the Advocates for Social Justice, the Sunrise Movement and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement outlined their own plan for creating a task force aimed at spending $10 million on 250 climate-conscious affordable housing units in Cedar Rapids.
“Public money should go toward people,” said Jamie Izaguirre of Iowa CCI. Supporters carried small signs saying “Public Money for Public Good.”
Advocates for Social Justice and the Sunshine Movement pushed the city to address police reforms and adopt a climate action plan, respectively. Now the groups are using their clout to address housing.
Mayoral candidate Amara Andrews, a member of the Advocates for Social Justice, supports that plan
“I think that is a logical proposal to have a task force to study the issue of homelessness, and to put forth a plan to help people out of homelessness makes sense. It’s a big problem in our city,” Andrews told me this past week. “Now is the perfect time when we have the recovery act funding.”
Andrews also has her own plan for spending ARP funds. She would direct dollars to the “human welfare infrastructure” in Cedar Rapids, namely nonprofits providing critical relief and recovery services. She would make investments in existing small businesses and start-ups and address workforce shortages. She wants multiple opportunity centers in the city to provide employment resources and address transportation, child care, training and other employment barriers.
“The reality is that we need to help the people in need. And that is certainly what the focus should be. And any plan that doesn’t put people first is not paying attention,” Andrews said.
Andrews believes the city should shoulder more of the burden currently born by nonprofits.
“There are still a lot of houses in disrepair and people who are homeless as a result. And the struggle of getting materials and getting people to work on those repairs and navigating insurance claims still is a big problem in the community,” Andrews said. “I don’t want us to lose sight of that. I feel like the city is relying a lot on the nonprofits to deal with some of these issues.”
Mayoral candidate Tiffany O’Donnell is not a fan of the task force proposal arguing, instead, that the city council must take the lead and listen to the needs of residents.
“They are our elected officials and, by the way, we can hold them accountable,” O’Donnell said in an interview, noting that the United Way and other groups are assessing housing needs.
“I really want to focus on infill housing, with a designated portion for affordable housing. Housing and affordable housing in areas that were hardest hit by our natural disasters, COVID and certainly flooding,” O’Donnell said.
“I look a lot at downtown and those surrounding neighborhoods and they have felt the biggest impacts over the years. Our downtown is hollow today. I’m in and out of businesses that tell me every day they’re not bringing all of their people back for the foreseeable future,” she said.
Downtown housing in Cedar Rapids in recent years has meant lofts and other offerings for higher income professionals. But O’Donnell contends a better mix is needed to revitalize the core.
“I think a downtown is a city center. It becomes the signature of any successful town. Certainly the second largest city in the state needs a hallmark downtown,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell also wants to direct $3 million to nonprofits, including derecho recovery efforts, and $5 million to small business recovery.
The good news in all of this is none of these ideas are bad ideas. The needs are clear. A lack of affordable housing was a big issue even before the derecho damaged thousands of housing units. Harnessing under-skilled workers to fill jobs has been a longtime goal here. Nonprofits, flood protection, a better library with expansive services, all worthy objectives.
And the city and county working together? A sign of the apocalypse? Nah, we already lived through that.
Now we’ll see how the details unfold.
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