Statewide conversation on affordable, supportive housing begins

Spotlight reveals challenges within the Creative Corridor

DUBUQUE — Every county in Iowa lacks a sufficient number of affordable housing units, which, in turn, contributes to the prevalence of homelessness most apparent in the state’s population centers.

Although intensity varies, this lack of housing is a statewide challenge that affects the ability of communities to attract business and sustain a workforce, the need for taxpayer-funded safety net programs and overall health and well-being.

So, this week, the Iowa Finance Authority launched the first of three statewide conversations on housing with a specific focus on the overwhelming need for supported living arrangements.

“What we’ve learned from recent experiences in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City,” explained Carolann Jensen, chief programs officer with the IFA, “is that the push for housing, especially supportive housing, has to be a grass-roots effort. It has to be community-driven, and that happens when we are open about the problem, the challenges and are working together toward solutions.”

It’s a conversation that state Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Robins, hoped to launch with a stakeholder task force, organized under the umbrella of the IFA. Although her bill won strong committee support, leadership didn’t bring the measure to the Senate floor.

Siding is added to new housing development. (File photo)
Siding is added to new housing development. (File photo)

“The good news is that the Iowa Finance Authority remained receptive to this idea of bringing everyone together,” Mathis said. “We don’t have the task force, but we can still raise this discussion to a statewide conversation. We can look at the data from PUSH-CR, the Cedar Rapids supportive housing federal demonstration project, learn from the challenges faced by Commonbond Communities and Willis Dady in connection with the Crestwood Ridge project, and see how the narrative has been changed in the Iowa City area.”

Statewide numbers showing need were provided by Ehren Stover-Wright, a research director with the Institute for Community Alliances.

“In every county, there is a shortage of units for rent at an affordable rate,” Stover-Wright said.

In Dubuque County, for instance, about 3,400 households earn less than 30 percent of the area median income. That is, those households earn less than $19,900 per year — which is far below the county’s poverty line of $24,600 for a family of four. People making between $19,900 and $24,600 still are living in poverty, but won’t qualify for most forms of housing assistance.

The 3,400 households earning below the 30 percent median compete for 301 housing units priced in an affordable range — meaning that households entering those units would not be cost-burdened or spending more than 30 percent of their income on living expenses like rent and utilities. Because affordable housing stock is in such short supply, Stover-Wright says 82 percent of these households spend more than half their income on rent.

This scenario plays out in county after county.

In urban Linn and Johnson counties, more than 10,000 households compete for 1,296 (Linn) and 254 (Johnson) housing units. More rural Cedar County has 610 competing for 28 housing units. While in Washington County, nearly 800 compete for 65 housing units. Shelby County in northwest Iowa has more than 600 at 30 percent of area median income and no housing units in that affordable range.

This is why homelessness, which is more noticeable in urban areas, remains a statewide problem.

“When people arrive for services at a shelter or similar facility, we learn the ZIP code of their last housing. People are coming into Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Iowa City and other population centers to access services, but they don’t always originate there,” Stover-Wright said.

Estimates of how many people from each county became homeless in 2016 shows not only large numbers from urban counties (3,300 in Linn, 7,800 in Polk, 1,800 in Scott and 1,600 in Johnson County) but significant contributions from counties with far less population density (700 in Clinton, 846 in Dubuque, 117 in Washington, 73 in Jones and 37 in Cedar County).

And keep in mind that these figures are extrapolated from the Homeless Management Information System data, which captures information only about those people who accessed various services in the 19 counties with participating providers. People who have become homeless in Iowa and went into a shelter are the extreme end of poverty. Before these individuals come into urban centers looking for help, they’ve already tried and failed to remedy their situations by entering into cost-burdened living quarters, doubling up with relatives or friends or using non-traditional shelter options.

“Moving to an urban center and seeking services is a last resort,” Stover-Wright said.

What we know, what Chrissy Canganelli, executive director of Shelter House in Iowa City has been able to prove through long-range, before-and-after tracking, is that leaving people to cycle through emergency shelters, jails, prisons, inpatient treatment programs, emergency rooms and similar services costs far more than making an investment in affordable, supportive housing.

By studying expenses of people one year before and one year after they’ve been in stable housing, Canganelli’s group of 10 people shows an 82 percent decrease in cost — $556,594 to $98,519. On average, each person went from nearly $56,000 per year to less than $10,000 per year.

Because most, if not all, of these expenses are met by taxpayers, the public cost of homelessness is clear.

“We can’t only rely on the emotional stories of homelessness,” Canganelli said. “We need to be able to show the economic burden of homelessness as well, and give a clear voice to the fact that housing and helping people is both a moral and economic imperative.”

More groups working on affordable and supportive housing will be showcased in the remaining two statewide meetings in Des Moines and Carroll.

“I think what the demonstration work in Cedar Rapids has shown is that collaboration is key,” Mathis said. “Solutions aren’t going to come if we are content to stay in our silos.

“That’s why these meetings are so important. We need to understand the problem, need to know what’s worked or hasn’t, need to be able to rationally and factually discuss it in our communities and build the type of cooperative efforts that are going to make a difference.”

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 30, 2017.