Michelle Winters Has the Floor

Strategic plan facilitator talks region's housing future

Michelle Winters Has the Floor

I’ve spent the last two decades visiting communities and organizations across the country, working with them to design and evaluate affordable housing and development strategies, programs and policies for more sustainable, affordable and inclusive communities. In the past year I’ve come to know the Greater Des Moines area quite well by working with an organization who is hitting its stride with an updated strategic plan at just the right time to help all of Polk County prepare for what’s to come.

The organization is the Polk County Housing Trust Fund and 2015 was a big year for them, and in turn for the communities they serve.  Here’s a look behind the scenes.

In April, PCHTF staff worked with a broad coalition to publish the Housing Tomorrow plan, a comprehensive look at the region’s housing priorities and the strategies needed to create and preserve affordable housing in the area. Housing Tomorrow is a direct descendent of The Tomorrow Plan, which establishes a broad vision for Central Iowa in coming decades. As the plan points out, 266,000 new residents are expected in Central Iowa by 2050, and 112,000 new housing units will be needed. With 44% of all area renters currently experiencing a rent burden – paying more than 30% of their income on housing – keeping up with this growth is vital. The Housing Tomorrow plan calls for a coordinated region-wide effort to meet the area’s diverse and changing housing needs.

The creation of the Housing Tomorrow plan was a major effort for all stakeholders involved, but it was particularly meaningful for PCHTF because this new regional housing strategy needs a steward in order to ensure success. PCHTF, which was due to start a new strategic planning process of its own soon, felt a responsibility and saw an opportunity to take on the role of coordinator and steward for the plan.


The strategic planning process for PCHTF began in September with an honest assessment of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (known as a SWOT analysis). Two key meetings helped provide the input needed to craft a plan: a stakeholder input session and a day-long strategic planning session with members of the PCHTF Board of Directors.

Participants in these meetings sent a clear message: in order to really turn the corner for affordable housing, PCHTF would need to evolve and take on a bigger leadership role on housing policy. This would mean moving beyond the organization’s traditional – and still important – role as a funder. Implementing the Housing Tomorrow plan involves stepping up activities around education and advocacy to help create political will and policy change in jurisdictions throughout the region – especially those outside of the city of Des Moines. In fact, this kind of activity is not new for PCHTF. It builds upon and expands activities such as the Can I be Your Neighbor campaign and its research and planning efforts over the past several years.


The strategic planning process allowed PCHTF to modernize and update itself to confront this challenge. Its original mission and vision were out of date and lacked strategic focus needed for the task. The new mission and vision, approved by the Board of Directors at its January 2016 meeting, more clearly state what PCHTF hopes to achieve and how they plan to do it.


Everyone has equal opportunity for safe, stable, affordable homes within the communities where they choose to live, work, play and learn.


To provide strategic leadership, expertise and resources to strengthen communities by expanding affordable housing choices in Polk County.


Building on this newly articulated vision and mission, the Strategic Plan for the next five years calls on PCHTF to partner with communities, business leaders and other organizations to reduce barriers to affordable housing, and plan and implement innovative housing solutions. PCHTF will not only educate regional stakeholders on housing needs and benefits but it will also advocate for communities to take action. These activities will complement PCHTF’s ongoing role in funding safe, stable affordable housing and services, which will be strengthened and aligned with the new mission and vision.

I am excited to imagine what PCHTF and its partners will be able to achieve in Des Moines, West Des Moines, Urbandale, Ankeny and all the surrounding communities. PCHTF is moving into a new era with a sound strategy for improving housing opportunities throughout Polk County. With a new Strategic Plan driving the activities of the organization, PCHTF will directly support – and help bring to fruition – the Housing Tomorrow plan’s priorities for the entire region. 

I’m planning to keep a close eye on the progress in Polk County and look forward to sharing your successes and strategies with communities around the country.

Michelle Winters is the President of Winters Community Strategies LLC, a consulting practice that designs and evaluates affordable housing and community development strategies, programs and policies, with a focus on creating more sustainable, affordable and inclusive communities. She has 20 years of experience working in the housing and community development field on issues ranging from housing finance and policy to nonprofit capacity building. Michelle is currently a Sr. Visiting Fellow at the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing.