Angela Connolly Has the Floor

The Cavalry Is Not Coming

Angela Connolly Has the Floor

The pandemic is wreaking havoc in every part of our lives — upending industries and leaving countless people without work, childcare, and an ability to put food on their tables and keep a roof over their heads. With so much need, so little time and trying to serve in such a politically charged and divisive time, I ask myself, “What is an elected official to do?” Thankfully, the answer is clear — choose to take action based on the commitment that Polk County government is the people’s government. 

While there are several examples of this, I’m going to focus on the fundamental need of housing and lift up a program we created in partnership with the Polk County Housing Trust Fund and Iowa Legal Aid to help keep renters in their homes and apartments, and ensure landlords are paid. 

Early in the pandemic many states, including Iowa, issued a public health emergency that temporarily provided protections against evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs related to nonpayment. While helpful out of the chutes, our focus was on a plan for what would be needed after May 27, when the moratorium ended. People would still be out of work and government payments to individuals through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act would still be delayed by bureaucratic indecision on contract language and limitations and who “deserved” assistance. 

That’s why Polk County stepped up with $800,000 and a vision of developing a program focused on three things —preventing homelessness, raising awareness of existing rental and support resources, and assisting landlords — quickly! 

We called on two trusted partners, the PCHTF who has proven time and time again to be the absolute best advocate of housing and a trusted steward of resources, and Iowa Legal Aid whose mission is to provide critical legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable Iowans. Instead of the usual application process and making folks jump through hoops, we discussed how to literally take the program to the people who needed it most and set up at the Polk County Justice Center where eviction hearings were taking place.  It was literally the last thread of the social safety net.

As of October 27, I am happy to share that 403 households, including 254 children, have been kept from homelessness. 256 eviction cases have been dismissed and the tenant has been left with a zero-balance owed to the landlord.$438,582.00 of the $800,000 has been paid out. Negotiations, decisions and the payment of back rent and future payment plans are made on the spot. Eric Burmeister, Executive Director of PCHTF and thankfully a former real estate attorney, has managed many of the cases where time and time again people have lost jobs or had hours cut due to COVID-19. He has shared stories with me that are both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. And here’s an important insight, these are families from communities throughout Polk County. To date, those who were on the verge of homelessness and rescued from eviction have included residents from Altoona, Ankeny, Des Moines, Grimes, Pleasant Hill, Urbandale, and West Des Moines.  

Economically, socially, and emotionally things are likely going to get worse before they get better, especially given our state’s status as having one of the highest rates of infection in the nation for COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. And even before the pandemic, there was a scarcity of affordable units. In fact, about 8,000 affordable housing units short for those who need a place to live in Polk County. We were making progress before the pandemic, and while now facing some pretty stiff headwinds, it’s important we continue to help our region’s communities understand the need to plan for and provide a mix of housing options that match the jobs and related incomes in their communities. 

In closing, we can’t control what the federal government does, or even our own state government, but we can control what happens in our county. As the saying goes, the cavalry is not coming. Our self-reliance, Disaster Recover Task Force, and shared commitment to using our tools and resources to help one another is what will make the difference in these challenging times. Even if it means setting up in the hallway of the eviction court to keep one family at a time from becoming homeless.