Affordable housing in 3.5 simple yet courageous changes

Eric Burmeister | Executive Director, Polk County Housing Trust Fund   

The Idea: More affordable housing will help write the story of a metro in 2050 that is more sustainable, inclusive and welcoming to families of all incomes.

How long can we be told our best regional asset is affordability before we become complacent? About three decades, that’s how long. Now that story is being challenged and it is time for action.

The metro’s population is projected to grow to nearly a million by 2050. Each new household will need a place to live. Many of them will be taking new jobs in our service workforce adding their families to the list of folks already searching for that perfect affordable home in the metro. Housing is not affordable to the 39 percent of us in Central Iowa who pay more than 30 cents of each dollar we earn for rent. We can’t find homes in places we’d prefer to live that are close to our jobs, our doctors or the schools we’d like our kids to attend. We’ve never understood that worn-out story about Des Moines being an affordable place to live and raise a family. Perhaps compared to other places that are less affordable, but that is cold comfort when the money runs out before the end of the month.

What is the solution for our existing families and those we want to welcome in the future? It is simply to build what they want and need – a variety of housing types and prices in a variety of locations. That sounds easy, but trust me, the execution is hard. History demonstrates that for generations we have segregated our service workforce to less desirable, less accessible and less healthy areas of our metro.

How do we alter this narrative over the next 35 years? It will take 3.5 simple yet courageous changes.

The first is to understand the extent of the imbalance currently a shortage of almost 8,000 homes across Polk County. But more specifically, the geographic complexity of the imbalance. Each community must have a thorough understanding of who comes and goes across its borders each day. Who comes for work, who leaves for work? Is their city a destination for certain types of activities, such as shopping, entertainment or health care?

The second is to understand the existing types and prices of homes. Is there an imbalance between the households that want and need to live in a community and available homes in their price range? If so, what are the number of homes that need to be added annually to correct that imbalance by 2050? Approving new housing development that is consistent with the goal of providing balance is the most basic step in improving the choices available.

The third is to know what type of job growth a community is expecting or courting between now and 2050. On the economic development side, let’s connect the dots. Each new job will need a place to sleep that is appropriate and affordable to the worker’s household. Understanding the impact of economic growth on the type of jobs being created is crucial. Providing new homes at appropriate price points in appropriate locations will be critical to making regional job growth successful and sustainable.

Finally, as a metro we must acknowledge that our past housing practices have created scars on our residents and our neighborhoods. Reducing future harm and beginning the process of healing calls for a commitment to ending practices that directly and indirectly work to exclude affordable housing. Each community or neighborhood must critically examine the extensive data available and decide what policies it needs to adopt that first benefit the folks who want or need to live there.

This new outlook around housing will help write the story of a metro in 2050 that is more sustainable, inclusive and welcoming to families of all incomes. >

+1 Wade Hiner, President, Sales & Marketing, Destiny Homes
+1 Mike Tramontina,Citizen, Retired
+1 Steve Eggleston, Field Office Director, U.S. Dept of HUD