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Resources are there; Iowa City City Council should act on affordable housing

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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For years, officials in both Iowa City and Johnson County have acknowledged the need to provide affordable housing for lower- to middle-income individuals and families in the area. But while many have agreed that the lack of affordable housing is a pertinent issue, the problem has largely remained unsolved.

Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced Iowa City would be the recipient of approximately $1.2 million in federal grants for affordable housing.

Though the allocation is smaller than in previous years, it’s still a substantial sum. And while this no doubt means many programs will retain some funding, the current state of lower-cost housing sits in a precarious position; especially given the increased demand for low-income services combined with decreases in federal funding.

While it’s important to maintain current programs, the grants should further serve to prompt greater action on the affordable-housing problem. Given the slow economic recovery, housing looks to remain a sticky issue; with federal funding a dicey prospect, the Iowa City City Council should move swiftly to create a lasting affordable-housing plan.

The City Council has previously discussed potential policy solutions to offset the problematic costs of renting and living in the city, but for the most part, it has often decided to defer any real decisions on the subject until more data have been accumulated. Arguably, some progress has been made, including the City Council earlier this year approving the use of computerized models to help city planners more efficiently distribute lower-cost housing throughout the city. However, some, such as former City Councilor and affordable-housing advocate Karen Kubby, are less optimistic that headway is being made.

“Every 10 years, [Iowa City pays] a lot of money for a study, and then people are paralyzed by the overwhelmingly complex issues of affordable housing,” Kubby told the DI Editorial Board in September 2010. When asked why she believed officials were paralyzed, she explained that finding a solution “means interfering with the private market and with private developers,” a position she believes few officials are willing to pursue.

Still, it’s become clear that current policies are not achieving the intended goal of providing substantial housing that meets the criteria of “affordable.” And as Iowa City’s affordable-housing needs continue to increase, both as a result of urban growing pains and continued economic hardship, city officials should thoroughly contemplate new ways of combating the problem.

Thankfully, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean heavy-spending policies.

“The city has bond-issuing authority and can issue bonds that could provide low-cost money to developers to build housing at lower cost,” Jerry Anthony, a University of Iowa associate professor of regional and urban planning, told the DI Editorial Board in an e-mail. “But accepting this financing would come with bureaucratic oversight for the developer, so why would the developer do it?” He stressed the need incentivize development. Still, he said, the proposal would “cost the city nothing at all.”

Prominent among the currently proposed solutions being tossed around is inclusionary zoning, a highly divisive term that refers to the practice of requiring new developments to include some percentage of lower- to middle-income housing in an effort to diversify housing accommodations. While the decision to implement inclusionary zoning may or may not be a possible solution for Iowa City, it’s at least worth revisiting as one of a few possible options.

Given the state of financial affairs in this country, monetary support will likely continue to dwindle. The money we have now should go toward affordable-housing initiatives that are sustainable in the long run — good, concrete plans that allow future development.

The new makeup of the City Council after November may be amenable to this issue. Candidates for City Council Daniel Tallon and Jim Throgmorton, a UI professor emeritus of urban and regional planning have mentioned lower- to middle-income housing as a major issue, and they understand the difficult nature of the subject.

“I think we need to sit down with builders and ask them what we can offer to entice them to build affordable housing,” Tallon told the DI last month.

“I do not think affordable-housing options mean apartments only, but also small houses that fit the budgets of young families or the working lower-middle class.”

While there may be no easy solution, it remains vital that city officials and active citizens work swiftly to come up with innovative strategies to address the growing pressures related to affordable housing. Even with the slight reduction in funding, the continued federal grants — combined with a new computer-modeling system — provide enough resources to prompt significant progress in the next year, should the city councilors so choose.

Let’s hope they do.


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