Teree Caldwell-Johnson Has the Floor

Stable. Steady, Strong. These words are our call to action.

Teree Caldwell-Johnson Has the Floor

Stable. Steady. Strong. I remember being introduced to these three words during the launch of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund’s fundraising campaign. I was drawn to it because it’s compelling. I hold on to it because it’s ambitious.

It embodies the vision we have for our housing infrastructure as well as the preferred future we envision for our neighborhoods and community. Specifically, it compels us to provide stable housing essential for sustaining a steady workforce that will build a strong economy for our community.

But do not let these strong words lull you into complacency, perhaps imagining a plan and course of action is set. We’re not there yet, particularly when it comes to people of color and other marginalized populations. The future challenges us to use a new lens as we consider the matter of housing and what is fair and equitable for all citizens.

Stable. Steady, Strong. These words are our call to action – indeed our North Star – for what is directionally correct as we pursue the development of equitable housing policy and create equitable access to quality and affordable housing. Stable. Steady, Strong.

Des Moines and Polk County are ideal places to make a living and raise a family. Not a month goes by that new rankings and accolades are bestowed on our beloved city. But for each time that a new accolade rolls in, persistent racial disparities prevail, challenging us to shift the focus and change the narrative. In my role as Chair of The Directors Council (TCD), we commissioned the 2017 One Economy State of Black Polk County report which revealed a modern-day Tale of Two Cities; a place where persistent racial disparities prevail on nearly every measure - health, employment, education, financial inclusion and HOUSING.

Consider the following data:

  • A 2019 U.S. News and World Report identified Des Moines as the 3rd Most Affordable Place to Live in the U.S. For the Black population in Polk County 53.35 percent are rent-burdened which means that over 30% or more of their income is spent on rent. This number compares to 39.2 percent of the total Polk population.
  • In Polk County, 69.3 percent of Black people rent their homes, compared to 32.9 percent of the general population.
  • The limited availability of rental units in Polk County further limits the housing options of African Americans. The average apartment vacancy rate in the Des Moines metro area is 7.0 percent. The vacancy rate for low-income and tax –credit housing is much lower at 3.0 percent.
  • Of the 7,821 housing units in Des Moines Urban Core, 83 percent were built before 1979 and 17 percent were built in subsequent years.
  • 47 percent of the housing units in Des Moines’ Urban Core are owner-occupied while 53 percent are rental occupied.
  • In Polk County, all public housing units are located within the Des Moines city limits. There are 424 units available and in 2019 there were 797 households on the waiting list.
  • African Americans represent just 2.6 percent of all homeowners in Polk County.
  • African Americans are denied loans at a rate 2.2 times higher than the Polk County average.
  • The median value of single-family homes in minority census tracts is $95,600, while the median value of homes in all of Polk County is $165,500.

Stable? Steady? Strong? Everyone wants to be proud of Polk County and Des Moines for the robust economy, plentiful jobs, cultural richness, and metro-wide commitment to maintaining its vitality. That notwithstanding, the One Economy data and stories reveal that Black residents of our community continue to fall behind. The One Economy data reminds us that we are only as strong as our weakest link and the growth and vitality of our region is predicated on the premise of economic inclusion and the elimination of disparities. It exposes the likelihood that many of the same economic disparities that exist for Black Polk County likely exist for the county’s other ethnic minorities. It builds on the promise of thinking and believing there is something better for our Black and Brown children and their children’s children.

Stable. Steady. Strong. With these three words, the Polk County Housing Trust Fund acknowledges our inequities and failings but tempers them with tremendous hope.

Stable! Steady! Strong! I believe this can become a mantra that challenges us to reimagine our future and think about the difference between what we deem acceptable versus what is POSSIBLE and right.