Jim Cownie Has the Floor

Everyone Deserves a Decent Place to Live

Jim Cownie Has the Floor

The 2019 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 in February with Jim Cownie serving as the campaign chair. A well-known and highly-regarded community leader, businessman and philanthropist, Jim is always good for pragmatic insights, optimistic thinking, and a touch of humor. Here’s part of a recent discussion around housing and the campaign.

Q: Why did you say yes to serving as honorary chair of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund’s annual campaign?

A: Because Angela Connolly asked, Tracy promised the Housing Trust Fund staff would do most of the work and because housing – along with education and the ability to get around a city – is how companies choose where to put jobs and people choose to live.

Did you see the Wall Street Journal the other day? Microsoft pledged $500 million to support affordable housing in the Seattle area. That’s not out of the goodness of their heart. It is a major employer in a city that estimates a shortage of about 305,000 housing units for middle- and low-income families. It’s clearly an issue that will impact their company if they don’t do something, such as making the largest financial investment made on a single community issue.

In Polk County, we are short about 8,000 units for those who work lower-income jobs. It’s all relative. For a city our size, that’s a significant shortage given the growth we are seeing in downtown Des Moines and our suburbs.  

Q: Speaking of challenges and growth, what are some of your observations about what has changed the most over the years? Surprises or trends?  

A:  Downtown Des Moines has always been the place for large employers and tens of thousands of employees, but what has changed most dramatically is the number of people who now live in the downtown area. It wasn’t that long ago, just 20 or so years, that there were probably just 500 people living downtown, and the options were not places many of us would choose to live. Now downtown Des Moines is home to 5,077 residents, according to a 2018 Downtown Housing Study that will be released sometime this spring.

And statewide, we have a little over three million people – with an increasing migration of our young people leaving our smaller towns for the opportunities and lifestyles offered in larger cities. Very few 21-year-olds want to live in a town of 300. Let’s make sure we have places they do want to live.  I hear story after story of parents in places like Davenport, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, who look to Des Moines as the place they want their kids to be.  Des Moines has it going on right now. I say let’s be strategic and bold while we have the wind at our backs.

Q:  When it comes to tackling the issue of housing, what do we need to do or be mindful of as we work to create and fund plans?

A:  Clearly there are people who know a lot more about the planning and policy side of having the right mix of housing in our communities than me, but I do have some observations and have learned a few things recently that make me feel good about helping with this campaign. 

For example, I believe in working to impact the full spectrum of housing needs in our region, starting with those who impact the entire spectrum – those in our community who are homeless.

I suggested we peel off part of the money raised from this campaign and give it to those who are working in this area. And you know what I found out? The Housing Trust Fund is already doing that as the single largest funder of the Continuum of Care’s Centralized Intake work. $100,000 of the money raised each year goes to the Housing Navigator, which takes people out of shelters and off the streets and puts them in apartments they can afford. It also funds programs that help them remain in those apartments and homes.

I also learned that 100 percent of the money raised from this campaign goes to funding and sustaining programs that assist folks making less than 30 percent of area median income. For an individual that’s around $16,000 a year; and for a family of four, around $25,000.  If they spend a third of their income on housing, which is a HUD guideline, the single person would need a place for approximately $420 a month and the family would need a place costing $630 a month. While Des Moines is known for being an affordable place to live, we certainly don’t have nearly enough places at those levels. In fact, as I mentioned before, we are short 8,000 units.

Q: Closing thoughts?

A: There’s a theme. Not just here, but throughout the country. Any community that wishes to be vibrant and growing will have to figure out how to provide the right mix of housing for all incomes and all stages of life.

And like individuals, employers also have choices for where they do business. We have employers in our region who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their facilities and creating desirable workspaces for their employees. But if those employees can’t find nearby, affordable and desirable places to live, then we have not held up our end of an unspoken, yet critically important deal.

That’s why housing should be on the short list of the most important things we discuss, fund and plan for. Economically, it’s the smart play, and ethically it’s the right thing to do.

Everyone deserves a decent place to live. 

In 2018 the programs sustained by the Polk County Housing Trust Fund’s Stable, Steady, Strong campaign helped achieve the following results:

  • 1,121 households have been able to stay in their home for more than two years.
  • 893 families moved from homelessness to permanent housing.
  • 4, 899 people enjoy a better quality of life as a result of access to affordable housing.