One less housing option

Enacting justice reforms that include early release of nearly 1,000 non-violent drug offenders will spike demand for affordable housing. And, in Cedar Rapids, there’s one less option.

In a column published the week Gov. Terry Branstad signed the criminal justice reform bill, I noted opportunities for ex-offenders to access housing and employment are few and far between.

Not only will the state need to revisit the nearly 650 “tough on crime” era laws that restrict the rights of former offenders, but more integration opportunities need to be developed if society expects assimilation and productivity.

To that end, my last column included a call for more ex-offender housing options like the Mary Lundby Townhomes in Cedar Rapids.

“Check your facts,” a reader and former Lundby Townhome resident replied, adding the that mission of the property had changed.

I did as I was told and the reader is right.

Just a few years ago The Gazette ran a news item about the property’s grand opening. A glitch in the paper’s archives shows a publish date of March 2014 on that item, but it actually ran in January 2010. Regardless, at the time the project was heralded as major accomplishment.

Ex-offenders were able to establish residence with their families, reducing the financial burden of maintaining two family dwellings. Parole and probation officers and other counseling professionals were housed in nearby community spaces.

A joint project of two non-profits — Community Housing Initiative and Community Corrections Improvement Association — the townhomes were expected to provide added stability for those involved and less financial investment for taxpayers.

CHI, known for its expertise in property development and rental housing, served as property management while CCIA provided support services for residents.

“We had a good partnership,” said Sam Erickson, chief operating officer for CHI. “It was groundbreaking, a national demonstration project.”

Unfortunately, the partnership ended around the first of the year when CCIA had difficulty recovering from allegations it received improper support from 6th Judicial District Correctional Services. A legal probe by the Attorney General’s Office determined no state or non-profit workers personally benefitted from sharing resources, and no criminal charges were filed.

But, the damage to the non-profit that worked on behalf of people many view as unsympathetic had already been done.

Lundby Townhomes now operates under the tenant selection plan CHI uses on its other multifamily housing units. Applicants with a felony within the last 10 years are ineligible for tenancy.

“The situation took us by surprise,” Erickson said. “We were really disappointed the contract couldn’t continue.”

With no other agency capable or willing to stepping in to fill the service gap created by CCIA’s departure, the property couldn’t continue as it did.

Erickson explained that some, but not all tenants from the previous contract remain in residence. All new applicants must meet the new guidelines.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 4, 2016.