Chelsea Lepley Has the Floor

A lifelong advocate, now focused on housing

Chelsea Lepley Has the Floor

For as long as I can remember, I have believed one person can make a difference in their community -and beyond. This led me to advocacy and activism early in life. I started volunteering and fundraising at 9, canvassing at 12, tutoring at 16, and I’ve stayed involved. A little over a year ago, I deepened my commitment to community service by joining the PCHTF board.

My neighborhood, Capitol Park, is really diverse – culturally, economically, and otherwise. It’s clear to anyone who lives and works in an area like mine that we need diverse housing choices, as well. We have people with good jobs, people with no jobs, people who have generational homes, and people who rent by choice – much like in the rest of the city.

I think this is why the Can I Be Your Neighbor campaign resonated so much with me. It features people like me, who have jobs that help our community thrive, but that don’t pay enough to afford housing in many communities. Most neighborhoods simply don’t have a mix of housing options to match the various incomes of local jobs.

Community service is, as I said, meaningful to me, but serving on the PCHTF board has also been very educational. Since Polk County Supervisor Tom Hockensmith appointed me to the board, I’ve learned a lot about the advocacy, planning, and funding of affordable housing for low-and moderate-income households. I’ve learned jargon like AMI (area median income), and how it applies. For example, someone in Polk County making AMI earns $57,500, and housing that’s considered affordable for them (taking less than 30% of their income) would cost about $1,400 per month. The AMI figures that are referenced most often are 30% and 60% of AMI, which in Polk County would be $17,300 and $34,560, respectively.

I’ve also learned that Polk and eastern Dallas Counties are almost 8,000 units short of meeting the demand for single people making less than $15,000 a year (or someone at about 30% AMI). And according to a report provided by Hubbell, vacancy rates on the west and south sides of Des Moines are at their lowest levels in a decade – 3.1% and 3.7% respectively. Good news for landlords and sellers, very bad news for renters and buyers.

The numbers are important for policy and budget decisions, but it’s even more important to remember what the numbers mean for real people: our colleagues, neighbors, and friends. Rather than thinking in terms of housing units, I encourage people to think in terms of families with stable homes.

Having a safe, stable home is important to physical health, emotional wellbeing, academic achievement, and so much more. I was lucky enough to grow up in a safe, stable home here in Polk County, and I believe everyone deserves the same opportunity. That’s why I’m so invested in this work. There is a lot of work to do to improve equity and access, and it can seem daunting and slow, but I know that if we stay committed we’re up for the challenge.

That brings to mind a popular quotation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” (Margaret Mead).

Housing is one important issue that needs our attention, especially because of its many effects on community and individual health, but of course there are more. I invite everyone reading this to consider where your efforts are needed and work with decision-makers to make a difference. Join a board or commission, volunteer in other ways, and contact elected officials. We have some of the most accessible leaders in the country, and they are genuinely receptive to community input.