Affordable Housing Commission isn’t really optional

When Cedar Rapids mayoral candidates Brad Hart and Monica Vernon met last Tuesday night in a public forum, listeners may have left with the impression that reviving a long dormant Affordable Housing Commission was optional. According to city code, it isn’t.

Still, such a perception can be forgiven because city leaders have failed for more than a decade to populate the commission, which is charged with identifying “the nature and scope of the housing needs of low- and moderate-income citizens” and recommending “to the City Council effective strategies and programs to meet those needs.” Commission members also are “to generally assist in implementing appropriate activities in the accomplishment of these strategies and programs.”

As our editorial board noted in a March 2016 call for the commission’s revival, the group was formed around 1993 and operated for roughly 10 years before a disagreement about the commission’s purpose led to its demise. Funding for affordable housing projects dwindled — a sales tax that would have provided a $5 million fund was defeated by voters in 1998, and an earlier veto by then-Gov. Terry Branstad eliminated another funding source — and disagreements about what the commission was and should be festered. At the same time, appointments to the body, which are mandated by the municipal code, trickled to a halt. With no new members to replace those with expiring terms, there soon no longer was an active Affordable Housing Commission. That’s become the status quo; no subsequent Cedar Rapids mayors have chosen to appoint citizens to serve and the commission has remained dormant.

Area residents, elected officials and community leaders view affordable housing properties through the windows of a chartered bus during the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Bus Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017.
Area residents, elected officials and community leaders view affordable housing properties through the windows of a chartered bus during the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Bus Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

There are three reasons, I think, that revival of the commission has become an issue in this year’s mayoral race. First, and as I mentioned above, our editorial board researched the history and came out in favor of reinstating the commission. A handful of higher-profile affordable housing proposals failed to win approval from the City Council, despite receiving solid recommendations from city staff. And, council member Scott Olson, who led the Affordable Housing Commission for about nine years and was a mayoral candidate in the general election, made affordable housing a hallmark of his campaign.

“Affordable housing has become a major concern as inventory shortages cause rising rent prices,” Olson noted during the general election campaign. “Included in my plan to address the issue is reactivating the city’s Affordable Housing Commission, working with the council to create a full-time city employee position dedicated to implementing a citywide affordable housing program, budgeting $500,000 to provide a financial stipend for developers/builders to create more affordable units, a neighborhood finance corporation, and creating a ROOTS 2.0 program to encourage new single-family housing.”

As our editorial board interviewed mayoral candidates in the weeks before the general election, only Olson came prepared with a plan regarding affordable housing, and he was the only candidate to mention the Affordable Housing Commission. No doubt it was a politically savvy move by Olson, who understood his past votes on affordable housing projects that our editorial board championed placed him at a disadvantage.

That background helps explain why, when Hart mentioned revival of the Affordable Housing Commission during the Tuesday forum I helped moderate on behalf of The Gazette, KGAN-2 and Fox 28, I asked him how and why the commission became a focus.

Hart responded that, until recently, he was unaware of the commission. It was a fair and honest answer from a candidate who has not previously served in municipal government. Most residents, I think, don’t know that city code mandates the commission, or that it is inactive.

Even among those who are aware, like Vernon, there is debate. Some are leery of the group, worry it could further narrow the number of affordable housing proposals that would come before the council — perhaps used as council buffer or a shield against needed but otherwise hotly contested projects often resolved by unpopular votes.

Those who are hesitant about reviving the commission argue that other groups, like the City Planning Commission or Housing Services, serve a similar purpose and don’t always rely on political appointments that can shift alongside leadership and community sentiment. Fair enough. But then why not change the municipal code?

The most common answer I’ve received to that question: political will. No one wants to be seen as writing off affordable housing completely, and there’s concern that officially removing the Affordable Housing Commission from the code could be spun as such a move.

No residents have been coming to council meetings demanding the commission be reactivated, much less any aggrieved parties filing writs of mandamus to force city officials to perform code-mandated duties.

The bigger problem is housing — all housing — is complex. That is, there are a lot of moving parts, and too few people understand the process from start to finish who aren’t monetarily tied to one process piece or another. Discussions with developers provide their perspective, which is naturally tilted toward their needs and how they make money by providing necessary and vital services. Nonprofit groups, too, have their own interests to consider. Meanwhile, residents simply want a supply of safe, decent housing that closely matches their income.

If you stop people on the street and ask whether Cedar Rapids should have housing priced so that police officers, teachers or convenience store clerks can live near where they work, you’ll receive nearly universal support. But start tossing around phrases such as “affordable housing” or “Section 8” and sentiment shifts. Never mind that about 50 percent of those receiving housing assistance in Cedar Rapids are elderly or disabled. Never mind that public investment in affordable housing is dwarfed by public investment in market-rate homeownership through the income tax write-offs we all absorb.

Once we have a more comprehensive conversation we can answer the question of whether revival of the Affordable Housing Commission would produce more or less housing diversity. Until then, a promise to revive the commission, or to continue to ignore it, without further consideration of inclusionary zoning or other policies proven to increase affordable housing stock, provides little insight as to which candidate would be better champion of this issue.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Nov. 26, 2017. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette