Updated: Oct 18, 2022
A key player behind the thought-provoking and important sharing of redlining in Des Moines is Kendyl Larson, Director of Research and Planning for PCHTF. Kendyl and her partner will be moving to the Twin Cities soon, so we captured some discussion highlights about the Undesign the Redline exhibit and the current Redlining in DSM online platform and personal insights before she leaves.
Q: Your college degrees include a focus on history, social justice, and equity planning, any connection to that leading to the Undesign the Redline exhibit in Des Moines?
KENDYL: It was a total coincidence. Eric and the PCHTF team had already been in discussions with an organization named “Designing the WE” to display their national exhibit during the 2019 Affordable Housing Week and collaborate on a localized exhibit. In fact, talk about a coincidence, in 2019, I was still in school finishing a project called “The Legacy of Redlining and Segregation in Des Moines” as PCHTF’s plans were underway to share the history of housing inequity and related discriminatory policies. So clearly, the topic is near and dear to my heart.
Q: Speaking of timing, the exhibit was intended to be an in-person experience for about a year, and the pandemic hit just 3-4 months after it was open. What were those opening months like?
KENDYL: When we had groups coming through in-person, January through early March 2020, the level of interest and enlightenment was fantastic. All who passed through were shocked about the history of redlining and systemic discrimination in their community. So much of people’s knowledge about these practices were focused on large cities with large nonwhite populations. This shouldn’t have been surprising from a research standpoint because it’s not taught in schools, but the look of shock on peoples’ faces as they connected the dots of past policies and how they shaped our community and continue to impact lives was something I’ll never forget.
Q: I know some other Redlining exhibits across the country shut down because of the pandemic. What about Des Moines?
KENDYL: We focused on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t. As you’ll recall, everyone quickly learned to use platforms such as Zoom, Teams, Facebook Live, etc. The only questions for us were if we provided the tours virtually, would people sign up, and would the experience be as impactful. The answer to both questions was YES. In fact, we had around 1,200 residents experience the in-person tour. The virtual events reached as many as 3,000 and included more groups from companies, community organizations, and schools, rather than small teams and individuals. We also created content and repackaged it for others in our community who shared our mission on this front. For example, the United Way of Central Iowa’s 21-Day Equity Challenge designated day seven as housing and redlining.
Q: What is available today?
KENDYL: We created a 5-part video series covering everything from the basics of redlining and how to read a redlining map to the history of Des Moines and the State of Iowa regarding race and housing policies and where we go from here. We also created the website redliningdsm.com as a place for people to access everything — the history, maps, local stories, reading lists, resources, and of course, the 5-part series and other local videos such as the history of jazz on Center Street, the Gray brothers’ story and audio interviews with current residents.
Q: Of those stories you collected from our community, are there any that especially stood out?
KENDYL: Bobbretta Brewton’s family’s story and the impact on her as a child stands out because of what it demonstrates. She was about 10 years old when Interstate 235 was moved, and it cut through her neighborhood. They were forced to leave their home and move into a smaller house farther east. This led to riding a bus and changing schools where she and the other Crocker Elementary students were put in special education classes because it was assumed they couldn’t read. She shared how her parents had no idea and only became aware when the school called to say she was “disrupting the teacher” because she kept getting out of her seat to help the other kids. How eye-opening. Take that, all of the other families and business owners displaced, and no doubt generations continue to live with the effects.
Housing is holistic. Its impact is broad, deep, and more than if you simply do or do not have it.
Q: It seems like there are many reasons to be frustrated or even angry given the policies and related systemic racism of the past that continues today. As a facilitator, how did you manage?
KENDYL: I think it’s okay to be angry. However, what I saw and heard more was frustration and disbelief; those whose families were directly impacted, those who had no awareness and were shocked by what happened. Whatever skin color or experience, there was often a shared question, ‘With all we know, why don’t we do better and demand better?’.
Learning the actual history and what our government initially intended to accomplish is a great way to diffuse some anger. With perfect hindsight, we can see both the unintended and intended consequences of the housing acts and policies and how they enabled and even encouraged community planners, lenders, and realtors to discriminate against nonwhites, particularly African Americans.
Q: Greatest hopes or last words?
KENDYL: As you know, I love history and think it plays a significant role in seeking actionable change. So this experience of getting that message across through tours, virtual sessions, media interviews, and online resource listings has been incredible. In addition, it has allowed me to start asking the tougher questions for the future. In short, now that we know all of this, how do we move forward? How do we mitigate the past, have conversations with people who may be different from ourselves, and create a future where local history, social justice, and equity are a standard part of community planning and decision making?
That’s my greatest hope. It really could be as simple as that — for local history, social justice, and equity to be at the heart of every community planning and policy discussion.
Q: Do you think the Des Moines region can get there?
KENDYL: Given the level of engagement I’ve seen and discussions I’ve heard, there is undeniable support for creating a more equitable future for everyone who lives here. It feels like there’s been a shift. A good shift. So, to answer the question, yes, I believe that if there was a collective commitment, Des Moines and the entire region would be the place that could create a future of equity, inclusion, and housing justice for all.
Ashley Sloterdyk works at the Polk County Justice Center helping qualify households for emergency rental asssistance - here he shares his story of what it has been like. If you or someone you know is struggling to pay rent as a result of the pandemic, help is available! Learn more from www.ImpactCAP.org.
I had been following the Justice Center initiative with a mixture of admiration and concern — 1,017 Polk County families had been rescued from eviction due to their income being impacted by the pandemic, but how much longer could the financial and emotional reserves hold out?
One of my daughters serves on the planning committee for the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, and I had a personal connection with Eric Burmeister from some 20+ years ago when our sons were in high school together, so I reached out. Conversations with both my daughter and Eric, along with an interview with Angie Arthur, Executive Director of Homeward, left me believing a 64-year-old business retiree with a touch of nonprofit experience might be able to make a difference, so off I went to report for duty at the Polk County courthouse.
It was the day after Labor Day 2021 and the courthouse was absolutely crazy. The moratorium on evictions had been lifted and this was where renters would meet their last line of defense to losing their place to live. I was given two laptops and a tablet and told to get to work. First step was ensuring every person’s information was in the system. There were 60+ cases that first day and well over 100 on some other days. At the time, we were working in a makeshift, unfinished area on six- and eight-foot plastic tables, negotiating with landlords, and getting continuances and writing checks to save people from eviction. In short, if they could demonstrate a COVID-related impact to their household income that affected their ability to pay rent and were past due on their rent, then they could qualify for funds from IMPACT Community Action Partnership and Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) to be paid to their landlord. I have never seen such a swing of emotion—sorrow and desperation as tenants walked in the door; deepest appreciation and joy as they left.
Given the length of time we have been working and the number of people served, it feels like the cases should being going down, but they aren’t. And now, as the pandemic stretches into two years, we are seeing Polk County residents who have hit the 12-month limit for assistance and there’s nothing we can do for them. We also can’t help about a third of those facing evictions because they don’t make it to the courthouse. I’m not sure what to do about that, but I have faith that those reading this column may be able to help. On the positive side, we are developing relationships with property managers and landlords, and they are making renters aware of the assistance. And the other day I was able to work 8 cases that shared the same landlord. This made for a very efficient process and that cooperative approach is happening more and more.
Recently I experienced my first “air hug.” It had been eight weeks since a mother and her adult child had applied for help. They had been to three continuances, and we were finally able to help them. They were crying tears of relief and joy and the mother impulsively went to hug me and I had to stop her given social distancing related to COVID. She said she’d give me an air hug instead and we both wrapped our arms into the air and laughed with tears in our eyes. There are a hundred more stories like this and every one of them include real people in our community who are then able to reset their lives. I ask them to please take this opportunity to take care of their bills, get a job less impacted by the pandemic, and truly hit the reset button. I can see in their eyes that they embrace the words and have a renewed hope in their future.
One last thing, my favorite movie of all time is It’s a Wonderful Life. In short, banker George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, has so many problems that he is thinking about ending his life by jumping from a bridge. His guardian angel, Clarence, rescues him and shows him what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all his good deeds over the years. I like to imagine what our community will look like thanks to these “good deeds” provided through eviction prevention programs. I like to imagine the children who can stay in school and graduate and become wonderful teachers, health care workers, and whatever they dream of. I like to imagine the adults whose dignity is protected, and hope is restored. Indeed, every life has purpose — those who today may need help and those of us who may be able to help.
This month, Capital Crossroads launched Housing Tomorrow: Here We Grow, an initiative to build regional collaboration, data and knowledge sharing on workforce housing in Central Iowa. We believe that this work is critical to the future success and growth of our region and the data agrees. Our region is projected to add 150,000 new jobs, generating 84,000 new households, by 2038. These jobs will not be high-paying, though. The largest share of net new working households will have incomes between $25,000 and $49,999, and over 75% of all new projected households will not be able to afford new construction.
Central Iowa has an opportunity to prepare for the future jobs and businesses that will call our region home by making sure that their workforce is housed and has access to all of the amenities that make DSM USA a great place to live. There are three simple goals that we are encouraging all communities in the region to consider when making decisions regarding housing and economic development:
Housing should be near jobs;
The housing mix should reflect the job mix; and
Housing opportunities should be equitable to avoid segregation created by the market
These goals are broad because we recognize that each community is different and the challenges and opportunities that each face will be unique. However, by using these goals as a guide to decision-making and creating innovative strategies, communities will make great strides towards improving housing availability, affordability, and equity. This is what our region needs to attract and retain our future workforce and become even more competitive for the jobs of tomorrow.
We look forward to having conversations with each community to support them as they start thinking big about workforce housing and how it fits into their future plans. We will also be working on bringing communities together for discussions about shared ideas and challenges, so that we all can learn from each other as we implement these shared goals.
Capital Crossroads is the strategic vision plan for Central Iowa and the DSM USA region that pushes us to think big, not settle, think long-term, and work together. This initiative is based on three guiding principles: talent drives success, high-value opportunities must be captured, and sustainable growth is essential. At the intersection of these three values is workforce housing.
Since its launch in 2012, Capital Crossroads has taken pride in its ability to convene communities for collaboration that will build a stronger and more cohesive region, and we see workforce housing as the next big opportunity for our region to seize. We know that each community’s strategy is going to look different, but what if the goals we share are the same? This is the fundamental philosophy that underscores Housing Tomorrow: Here We Grow and it is what we are eager to work with cities to achieve.
Britney Samuelson is the director of Capital Crossroads. Find more information about Housing Tomorrow: Here We Grow at HereWeGrow.city.