Jake Christensen Has the Floor
Insights from Developer, 2020 Campaign Chair
PCHTF’s 2020 STABLE STEADY STRONG Campaign, which supports programming that helps find affordable places to live and develops personalized plans to help people stay in their homes, kicks off this month with Jake Christensen, president of Christensen Development, serving as the campaign chair. We talked with Jake about influences in his life, why he is stepping up on the issue of housing affordability, and what he believes is possible in the Greater Des Moines Region.
Q: What from your childhood has made you who you are today?
JAKE: Being the oldest of 7 children raised on a farm in northern Iowa without a lot of means definitely shaped who I am and what I value. We worked incredibly hard and if something was broken, we didn’t buy new, we fixed it. I learned to see the potential in everything — how it could be refashioned or repurposed into something useful. I still remember pulling nails and hammering them straight to reuse. We didn’t waste anything. No doubt it’s why I have been drawn to historic renovations and building things that will stand the test of time.
Q: Even before you agreed to be the honorary chair of the STABLE STEADY STRONG Campaign you were talking with the Polk County Housing Trust Fund about ensuring people who needed housing had options. Why the interest and why did you say yes to leading this annual fundraising initiative?
JAKE: I believe having the right availability of housing options most fundamentally determines the potential economic success and social quality of life for a region. Quite simply, the cities that are in the throes of a housing crisis will not be able to keep growing, or in some cases even maintain their local economies.
Q: How are we doing?
JAKE: The good news is that our regional economy is one of the leading Midwest metro areas in terms of population and employment growth. The potential bad news is that growth without a vision for downtown living within an overall regional cooperative plan around housing could result in big city challenges. Let’s start with the numbers. Approximately 10,000 people live in our downtown and more than 80,000 people come into the downtown to work each day. A couple of things come to mind, mobility and density. The more opportunities we can provide for people to live near their jobs and get around without having to own a car, the better for their budgets and health, and the better for our city. On the density side, Des Moines is uniquely positioned because we still have significant amounts of land, neighborhood nodes, infill lots, and corridors, that along with the suburbs, provide the potential to create housing options for all income levels.
Just a few more statistics that I hope will be part of every planning and development discussion. Currently we’re short 12,000 units needed for lower-income workers, and over the next 18 years Central Iowa employers are expected to add 150,954 new jobs. Of those new jobs, 70% are projected to pay less than $75,000 a year. In Polk County alone we will need to add 57,000 net new housing units whose costs align with the incomes of this workforce. My point is that we know what’s coming, we’ve quantified the current need and future demand, and we can do more than just make a dent in the numbers. Our business, municipal and nonprofit climate is such that if the right people coalesce, we could knock those numbers down and become one of the few cities whose leaders found a way to solve the housing affordability challenge.
Q: Speaking of relationships and working together, I understand Christensen Development consulted with PCHTF regarding a project that will displace tenants and is paying Primary Health Care to help them find housing.
JAKE: Yes, this spring we are converting Terrace Hill Apartments at 2525 Grand Avenue back into its original use as a hotel. It was built in 1962 as a Howard Johnson’s and in the 1980’s converted into apartments. I went to Eric Burmeister and asked his advice on how to help the residents who will be displaced. Many were in vulnerable financial positions or would be hard pressed to find an affordable place to live in the same area along Grand and Ingersoll. He suggested we partner with Primary Health Care who has a team of case managers that work within a robust homeless support program. The decision to invest $300,000 in these support services was made separate from any part of the acquisition or dealings with the City. We are simply trying to do the right thing and set a good example.
Q: A closing thought or quote that has been especially useful in guiding your decisions, such as the one to invest in helping those displaced by a development project, as well as your support of work around housing affordability?
JAKE: Leonardo Da Vinci said something like, “If you want to get something done you can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. You have to go out and happen to things.” When we see a need in our community, like the need for more affordable housing, we need to roll up our sleeves to do something to address it. It’s our community, and if we want to ensure its ongoing vitality, we have to get involved where we can and move the needle on important issues.
I’m proud that we are a unique community filled with an abundance of caring people who are willing to give their time and talents toward strengthening our region. This is evidenced by the amazing turnaround of Downtown Des Moines in recent decades and the continued growth of our entire area. There is still much work to be done though and I believe that if we decide to be a place where people of all income levels can afford to live where they wish, then we will be one of the few places where that is possible. Economically it would be an amazing competitive advantage and socially it’s simply the right thing to do.