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Editorial: Affordable housing proposal lacks pragmatism

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 09, 2014 5:00 AM

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The legitimacy of a proposal designed to allow low-income residents to rent units in a luxury condominium downtown has come into question. The proposal from the city would require $1 million of U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds to purchase five luxury condominium units in the soon-to-be-built Chauncey high-rise, which would then be leased by the Iowa City Public Housing Authority.

Even during the planning phase, the Chauncey faced opposition over issues such as the height of the building and the shadow it would cast over the surrounding area. However, the building won out over other bids and has since been approved for construction after some modifications to meet the requirements set by the city. The Iowa City City Council intended to provide affordable housing in whatever development was chosen for the lot at the intersection of College and Gilbert Streets.

Making units available to low-income tenants through federal funding sounds like a win-win, and City Councilor Jim Throgmorton, a UI professor emeritus of urban planning, said the project “is costly for low-income housing, but it’s not outrageously expensive.”    

The issue is not the intentions of the proposed sale, but rather if it is the most effective means of addressing the problem. The issue of providing affordable housing is not an easy to solve, especially so when trying to provide it in urban centers in which the value of property is higher. So while the idea of having luxury condominiums made available to lower-income tenants sounds good in theory, those in opposition ask if it is the most pragmatic option.

Arguments against the proposal come from both a legal and moral angle.

A federal statute states that funds from the Housing and Urban Development should not be used to put low-income tenants in luxury housing. In light of this, local attorney Rockne Cole, who ran for a seat on the City Council in the last election, requested that HUD take a look at the proposal.

The second issue lies with how the city is targeting tenants for the spaces. The prospective tenants for the five units would be the elderly or disabled, but not families, given the amount of space that would be needed to accommodate them.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes the $1 million in question could be used more appropriately to house more people, specifically families who would be left out in the current proposal. Not to say that the elderly and disabled don’t need housing, but the city would spend a great deal on providing affordable housing that wouldn’t be available to the majority of those who need it, thus defeating the point of seeking federal funds. Incentives should be provided to construct or modify housing that can accommodate larger numbers of lower-income tenants as opposed to trying to place a select few in luxury high-rises.  

If the money is going to be spent, it should be done in a way that encourages future development and sustainability for lower-income residents, a group that (as it stands) is priced out of much of Iowa City. This lofty proposal would be beneficial to the few tenants who manage to get into the Chauncey, but the money spent could be better used to benefit a great deal more.   


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