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Affordable Housing: A Workshop For Municipal Leadership

Affordable housing advocates are making a case for municipal support to generally receptive local officials as a projected workforce housing crisis approaches Polk County.

A newly released workforce housing study found Polk County will need to add 57,170 new housing units before 2038 to accommodate 150,954 expected new workers — about 70% of which will belong to households with annual incomes below $75,000.

Polk County Housing Trust Fund and Capital Crossroads, a group studying regional issues affecting central Iowa, presented their findings to city staff and current and prospective elected officials throughout the county in order to stress the area’s need for additional housing options.

“As we’re out meeting with your current elected officials, but mostly with your city staff, they’re really beginning to ask questions and come up and start to think about what they can do within their own communities to address this need,” said Eric Burmeister, Polk County Housing Trust Fund executive director, last week to a group of current and prospective elected officials from Des Moines, West Des Moines, Clive Urbandale and Ankeny.

Burmeister said he and Capital Crossroads director Nikki Syverson presented the data to nearly all of Polk County’s city managers and economic directors. Under current conditions, the private market cannot address the rising housing needs, he said.

“It’s just impossible,” Burmeister said. “We’re going to have to think about where the additional resources are going to come from.”

The study indicates the market cannot build housing that is affordable to the upcoming economic cohort without government subsidies. In order to keep rent low enough for a $30,000-a-year employee, developers and builders will need to subsidize between $50,000 and $70,000 for each apartment.

At a local workforce housing forum last week, West Des Moines At-Large City Council candidate Ryan Crane asked how individual cities could implement these subsidies.

“One thing that seems to me to be appropriate would be to get cities in Polk County to provide a subsidy for new construction. Is that realistic? As we go through this data, like how else are we going to do this?” Crane asked.

Taking down barriers to new construction in the price range for projected workers will be the first step, Burmeister said, and individual cities need to begin figuring how to offer subsidies. 

But cities need to also work with private companies, especially those that will employ the incoming workforce, in order to drive home prices down. Companies using the workforce may need to help house them, Syverson said.

Capital Crossroads is funded by the Greater Des Moines Partnership — an economic and community development organization working with groups to find ways to pull industries into housing discussions. 

“We are now working with them to see how can we leverage the Partnership’s relationships to have that business conversation,” Syverson said. “We’re also identifying some business leaders who will take this charge with us to show that their companies are committed to this.”

One of Capitol Crossroads’ consultants is also coming up with strategy recommendations to approach including local businesses, she said.

Capital Crossroads and the Polk County Housing Trust Fund are in the process of creating a regional workforce housing plan to address the projected challenges. It will focus on creating new housing opportunities while keeping certain principles in mind, including: 

• Building new housing near job centers that reflect the job and wage mixes in those areas;

• Building new housing where people may want to live but face an existing gap in appropriateness [size, tenure, accessibility] or affordability;

• Prioritizing income diversity everywhere to avoid the negative impacts of segregation.

“We’re talking about keeping up with a demand that is coming at us, and to keep up, those new houses are going to have to be built near job centers, and we have to make sure we don’t compound the economic and racial segregation we already have in this community,” Burmeister said.

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