Affordable housing tour offers necessary spotlight

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Work on a project for months, put your heart and soul into it and, even so, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick it out of the pack. This is the lesson lost to those who skipped the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Bus Tour last Thursday.

“I think we’re coming up on it now,” Jeff Capps, executive director of Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity, said from the front of the bus, holding onto the back of a front seat while bending and swiveling to peer out the windows.

“Pretty sure we’re getting close now,” Renie Neuberger, Affordable Housing Network director of real estate development, said later in the drive while striking a similar pose.

“It will be on your right. It’s painted green,” directed Ron Ziegler, executive director of Hope Community Development Association.

“Which one is it?” a passenger asked, craning her neck for a better view.

From rehabilitated properties to new construction, it was difficult to tell which properties were built to be affordable and which weren’t. And, actually, that was the point.

The best residential projects quietly serve the needs of the community. They become part of the everyday, accepted as part of the landscape.

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)

And, as many “tour guides” pointed out, once they begin work in a neighborhood, nearby property owners often begin their own projects.

“It’s not only uplifting for the property we are working on, or beneficial for the family that will occupy the home,” Ziegler said during the housing tour. “It elevates pride in the surrounding neighborhood.”

The Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Tour was made possible by a grant from the National Association of Realtors to the Cedar Rapids Area Association of Realtors. In addition to the organizations above, Matthew 25, Horizons, Housing Fund for Linn County, and Neighborhood Development Corp participated in the event meant to showcase their work.

“These projects come before the Council and we vote on them. But it is not very often that we have an opportunity to see those properties after they’re complete and fulfilling their purpose, especially not on this scale,” Justin Shields, a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council, said after completing the housing tour. “It’s good to see this, to know the end result of those votes. These projects are serving individuals and families, and adding to our community.”

Jeff Capps, Executive Director of Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity, serves as tour guide during the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Bus Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017.
Jeff Capps, Executive Director of Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity, serves as tour guide during the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Bus Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Organizers of the affordable housing tour, which was a first for the Cedar Rapids area, invited elected officials and other community leaders to ride the bus, see existing affordable housing options in the area and learn more about the missions and ongoing projects of collaborating organizations. Three members of the Cedar Rapids Council road the bus — Shields, Scott Overton and Scott Olson. Will Brandt represented the Marion City Council, and Stacey Walker participated on behalf of the Linn County Supervisors. Iowa Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt and Sen. Liz Mathis also took the tour.

As far as participation in first-time events go, it wasn’t a bad start. But I was hoping for more.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker boards the bus for the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017.
Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker boards the bus for the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Budget changes at the federal and state levels are going to directly impact the ability of local governments to pursue affordable housing. Arguably, those same changes will increase local need. Officials who skipped the tour not only missed an opportunity to learn more about the organizations working to bring more affordable housing to this area, but the opportunity to see for themselves that affordable housing and the people who rely on it aren’t outliers. Driving down residential streets, it’s difficult to pick out properties built or renovated as affordable — even more difficult when eyeing local tax rolls.

“A lot of folks hear the ‘warm, fuzzy’ stories that (our organizations) tell,” said Capps. “But we need to talk about the investment that’s happening too.

“When you look just at the Oakhill Jackson Brickstones project alone, that was an 18 million dollar investment in this community. It was one of the early projects in this neighborhood, which is now thriving.”

People look at the Oakhill Jackson Brickstones during the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Bus Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017. The project, according to the tour guide, was an $18 million investment in the community.
People look at the Oakhill Jackson Brickstones during the Cedar Rapids Metro Affordable Housing Bus Tour in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May. 25, 2017. The project, according to the tour guide, was an $18 million investment in the community. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Thursday’s tour was not only an opportunity for the community to view what’s been done, but permission to dream about what could happen next. In order for those dreams to become reality, however, participating organizations and community leaders must work together.

Strategic planning is needed if Cedar Rapids hopes to meet its affordable housing goal of more than 700 new units during the next decade. Planning, zoning, publicly owned land, financing, partnerships and non profit development must all be a part of the mix.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 28, 2017. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette