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Q&A: Audience questions from the Greater Des Moines Partnership's housing issue forum

In August, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and partners held an issues forum on affordable housing with local experts Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO of the Oakridge Neighborhood; Lance Henning, executive director at Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity; Amber Lynch, director of InvestDSM; and Kris Saddoris, VP of multifamily development at Hubbell Realty.

The forum was great review of what's new in our region's effort to provide every person safe, stable, and affordable housing. You can view a recording of the forum on YouTube here.

As often happens during this type of event, time did not allow every audience question to receive an answer. Now, our outreach and communications director Matt Hauge, who also moderated the panel discussion, responds to additional audience questions.

Q. Section 8 - what role does this play in affordable housing sector? How long is the wait list right now in Polk County? And with the state passing a law pre-emoting lawful source of income, ordinances. How does this effect section 8?

A. Section 8, or Housing Choice Vouchers, are critically important! Rental assistance is critically important for a person or family to obtain housing because it fills the gap between a family’s ability to afford housing and the rent.

Demand for vouchers always outstrips the number available. The amount of time someone waits to obtain a voucher varies depending on program rules, but can range from months to well over a year.

In addition to a short supply of assistance, people who finally obtain a voucher have a hard time using the assistance once they get it because not all landlords accept this form of payment. Lawful source of income policies, as a general rule, would have helped make sure rental assistance is considered fairly alongside other forms of income residents have. The intent is to make sure that people who obtain assistance are actually able to use it.

Q. For those of us that aren't directly involved in the housing industry, how can we best promote and support effective, efficient and equitable use of new federal funding for housing?

A. This is a very active time as cities and counties across Iowa are making plans for how they will use COVID-19 relief dollars. Now is the time to direct that question to your local elected officials who will be making those determinations in the coming weeks and months.

Already, we are seeing that happen. Just last week, Governor Kim Reynolds announced Iowa will allocate $100 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to housing programs.

Q. In terms of household size, what percentage of households are multigenerational? How do multigenerational households play into the need for affordable housing?

A. Your question prompted me to add some investigation into multigenerational housing into our review of census data that’s coming out. It’s a good question. Certainly, choosing to form a multigenerational household is something families may do for a variety of reasons. But it’s also true that sometimes these households form because of economic necessity because of factors like these:

  • Childcare is an increasingly burdensome cost for many families, especially with young children. Live-in grandparents or other relatives can help shoulder childcare responsibilities.

  • Sharing housing costs can help seniors extend their retirement savings and / or help younger generations reduce their housing costs.

Q. It would be great if we had a common definition and understanding on what "affordable" translates to. Almost every new project I have seen defines it as 60- 80 percent of area median income. This may or may not meet the need for workforce housing, but the result can often be pushing people who are at lower incomes "out at the bottom" when nothing is available. What is your definition of affordable housing?

A. We agree on that, for sure. Sometimes we explain it by just saying families shouldn’t be forced to choose between paying for housing and other necessities, like transportation, health care, and education. Tens of thousands of people make those trade-offs in our community every day. It is possible to get lost in discussions of which income can afford what, but generally we want every family to enjoy a share of the choices and opportunities that make living in Greater Des Moines so attractive.

The generally accepted standard for “affordability” is that folks shouldn’t spend more than 30% of their income on housing. That’s a moving target depending on how much income someone has. People without an income, on a fixed income (for example social security), as well as working people and families earning from minimum wage as high as just over $17/hour struggle to find housing in this region.

The greatest need we have for housing in our region is for folks with the fewest financial resources. You are correct that sometimes moderate income folks can occupy housing that would otherwise be available to lower income folks. In practical terms, though, we need more housing available at lower cost, especially to renters, and there are a variety of solutions that can help take pressure off folks facing the toughest challenge for a place to live.

Q. Kris mentioned bringing others to the table to address affordable housing topic discussion. I’m curious to know if there are any groups already involved within the immigrant communities that are “at the table,” and if so, who? If there isn’t, how can they get involved and are there resources available in different languages for those immigrant communities in case they need those resources?

A. Our community is fortunate to have a range of organizations supporting immigrant and refugee communities, including on housing issues. It’s risky to make lists of organizations because inevitably good folks are left out. But, some organizations to learn about might include:


  • Proteus

  • U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

  • Lutheran Services in Iowa

  • Catholic Charities

Within the world of housing, one important source of translation services is the Iowa International Center which maintains a housing support hotline to provide 24/7 assistance in over 180 languages.

Q. Following up on Lance's comment on the diminishing stock of "starter homes," as someone who has lived in and been civically engaged in Valley Junction, I and others are seeing large increases in housing for sale and for rent. Valley Junction has always been known as a starter home neighborhood, and with its limited land available for new development, how can we keep that neighborhood affordable as the area increases in popularity and new landlords move in, thus increasing the housing costs?? As a brief part two to "starter home" Additionally, what are some new strategies to better educate those opposed to affordable housing and if need be, prevent efforts to block for affordable housing, whether in Valley Junction or any of the 50 plus neighborhoods of Des Moines?

A. “Starter homes” are often defined as being smaller in size, sometimes with fewer amenities like -- think garages or finished basements. Valley Junction is home to a large number of starter homes - and they are in relatively good condition. That’s one of the many reasons Valley Junction is such a great neighborhood. (Disclosure: I used to work for the Historic Valley Junction Foundation.)

With regard to moderating price increases, the main way to do that is by increasing supply. One way communities do that is by helping to preserve the quality of existing housing, for example by supporting owner-occupied repairs (new roof, new windows, etc). But another way to achieve that is by building new housing, including condo, townhouse, manufactured housing and other choices at a price more first time home buyers can afford. As our region grows, increasing the supply of housing is really the way to keep price increases moderate.

Some of that new housing will (and should) be built in existing neighborhoods, and that can lead to a variety of concerns in a community. Proactive communication between cities, developers and neighbors is often the best way to address those concerns.

More than that, it turns out most people in our community support having more housing people and families can afford. Check out this great new presentation from the Iowa Finance Authority for more on that. We know that having a quality home is the way families get ahead, and that’s what most of us want for ourselves and each other.

If you feel this way, you can be an essential part of the conversation when new housing is proposed in your area. Do not underestimate the power of saying to others in your community, “You know what? We need more housing so everyone in our community will be able to thrive.”

The Public Policy Issue Forum on Affordable Housing was presented by the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Young Professionals Connection (YPC).


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