Staff Editorials

Cedar Rapids should revive long-dormant Affordable Housing Commission

The Oakhill Jackson Brickstones apartments on Sixth Street SE in Cedar Rapids, developed by Jack Hatch of Des Moines, have provided 96 affordable apartments. The complexes were built to replace affordable housing lost in the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood in the June 2008 flood. (George C. Ford/The Gazette)
The Oakhill Jackson Brickstones apartments on Sixth Street SE in Cedar Rapids, developed by Jack Hatch of Des Moines, have provided 96 affordable apartments. The complexes were built to replace affordable housing lost in the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood in the June 2008 flood. (George C. Ford/The Gazette)

This editorial is part of our 2016 editorial focus, Building blocks: Working together to make our communities great places to live.

If the Corridor is to continue to thrive, it must be home to a sufficient stock of safe, decent housing that people young and old can afford.

For years, this region has struggled with a shortage of affordable houses for low- and moderate-income households. It is a linchpin need that negatively affects issues as broad-ranging as education, community health improvement, public safety and the workforce.

Despite consistent calls to fix the problem, we’ve fallen shockingly behind.

That is why we are puzzled by the city of Cedar Rapids’ failure for more than a decade to populate an Affordable Housing Commission required by Cedar Rapids municipal code. The mayor and City Council should waste no time in reviving it.

The commission’s purpose, as outlined in the code, “is to identify the nature and scope of the housing needs of low- and moderate-income citizens in this community to determine and recommend to the City Council effective strategies and programs to meet those needs and, further, to generally assist in implementing appropriate activities in the accomplishment of these strategies and programs.”

Clearly, there is an urgent and persistent need for such work.

As local landlord and former Affordable Housing Commissioner Dick Rehman told us, “Government is supposed to help meet the needs of people, and one of the most basic needs is shelter.”

Between 2007 and 2011, at least 10 percent of Linn County households had severe housing problems — overcrowding, high costs, no kitchen or plumbing facilities, according to Linn County’s Community Health Assessment and Improvement Plan. The plan calls for an initiative by June 2017 to “address the barriers that hard-to-house populations and those living under 30 percent of the area median income face in relation to obtaining affordable housing.”

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A 2015 housing market analysis shows a need for more than 4,100 new housing units in Cedar Rapids by 2020. An active Affordable Housing Commission would align existing community resources, and identify, propose and secure new resources to meet that need.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The city’s Affordable Housing Commission was formed around 1993. Its demise, roughly 10 years later, according to multiple sources involved in city government at that time, was the result of a disagreement about the commission’s purpose.

“We had a really great cross-section of the community as part of that commission,” Cedar Rapids City Council member Scott Olson told us. He led the Affordable Housing Commission for nine years. “It was an opportunity to get a wealth of interested parties to sit around the same table and discuss what they were doing, listen to what everyone else was doing and look for ways that we could all work together.”

But others wanted the commission to take a much more limited role — serving as an ad hoc review board making non-binding recommendations to the council on how to spend money earmarked for affordable housing. As steady funding for affordable housing projects became scarce — sales tax that would have provided commission members $5 million for such projects was defeated by voters in 1998; an even earlier veto by Gov. Terry Branstad wiped away another potential funding source — city leaders stopped appointing new members to replace those with expiring terms.

Olson told us he believes the council should revive the commission and give the group another chance.

“There’s going to have to be some public investment because developers can’t make the money work to build affordable housing,” he said.

He also said he suspects that if all the groups and individuals working on affordable housing came back around a shared table, the collaboration could result in additional funding opportunities.

“If people are interested and willing to serve, why shouldn’t we have an Affordable Housing Commission? Every community around the nation is facing this problem,” he told us. “It’s a tough road that is only going to get more difficult in the future.”

POWER OF WORKING TOGETHER

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Few people are as familiar with the affordable housing crisis in Linn County as the roughly 60 representatives that make up the Continuum of Care Planning and Policy Council. The group has met monthly since October 2000 to help prevent and eliminate homelessness in Linn County.

“Before the continuum, there was some collaboration, but many of the groups were working in their own silos,” said Ann Hearn, deputy director of community planning for Linn County. “Coming together has allowed all of us to have access to the people we need in order to best help our demographic.”

While the continuum does not directly receive funding, it does play an important role in helping community organizations secure grants such as Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care Funds, Emergency Solutions Grants, Shelter Assistance Funds and Consolidated Planning Funds. Many of those sources require applicants to be involved in a local continuum or other planning body.

“There are times when more than one of the continuum agencies are competing for the same grant,” said Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Emergency Shelter. “Of course, we all hope we get the funding — there’s never enough to meet ongoing needs. We also realize how important it is for us to all work together.”

One benefit is data collection — often essential to making the case for government funding. Twice each year, continuum volunteers conduct “point-in-time” and “street counts” of homelessness. A survey of individual and family needs regarding housing and hunger is completed each summer.

But some of the largest successes and inroads made by the group came as a result of everyone taking a seat at the same table.

The collaboration allows the group to identify gaps in services and prioritize unmet needs. The ongoing dialogue helps minimize duplication of services and increase client referrals.

While membership has shifted over time, the continuum has maintained a healthy cross-section of many community touch points related to homelessness and hunger. Constant communication has allowed multiple interested individuals, governments, businesses and agencies to be aware of and help with a wealth of projects and activities throughout the county, all of which relate back to the group’s core mission of addressing hunger and homelessness.

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The success of the continuum serves as an example of how facets of a community, working toward similar goals, can be more effective together than on their own.

SETTING A BIG TABLE

One thing is for sure, Cedar Rapids’ need for affordable housing didn’t end alongside the Affordable Housing Commission. The Cedar Rapids Housing Services Division Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher waiting list is closed, and last was open for a time period of more than a month last February. There is no notice of when it could reopen, but CRHSD estimates that it will be sometime in 2018.

Only about 2.5 percent of available rental stock in Cedar Rapids is open at any given time, according to the city’s housing assessment. Fair market rent, determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, is $546 for a one-bedroom apartment in Cedar Rapids.

A single worker, earning minimum wage, would need to spend 44 percent of his take-home pay on rent alone to be able to stay in that apartment — far above the federal government’s affordable housing standard of 30 percent of take-home pay for all housing expenses — rent or mortgage, utilities, etc.

And there are very few apartments in Cedar Rapids available at fair market rent prices. At the time this article was written, for instance, only one of the 12 one-bedroom apartments listed on apartments.com fell at or under that rate. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $782 per month, or 62 percent of a minimum-wage worker’s take-home pay.

As land values increase and affordable housing stock remains limited, rental costs are expected only to increase, threatening the city’s ability to thrive.

Reviving the Affordable Housing Commission will provide the necessary “big table” for collaborative discussions about creative, effective solutions to meet our affordable housing needs.

As the Continuum of Care has shown, and former commission members can attest, there is much to gain by bringing passionate people to the table to work together on such a thorny problem.

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• 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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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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