Housing advocates see tougher times ahead

Architectural billings are down, signaling a sluggish construction economy. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Iowa housing developers and advocates on Wednesday told U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne that the coronavirus pandemic threatens to worsen an already challenging affordable housing scene in Iowa. 

“We’re really focused on this COVID-19 issue and what we need to do is act immediately to prevent a housing crisis in this country,” said Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. “We had an affordable housing crisis before COVID and we’re going to have a larger affordable housing crisis afterward. It is really about sustainability.”

Burmeister spoke as part of a Zoom panel on housing issues assembled by Axne, a Democrat.  In the November election, Axne faces Republican former Rep. David Young in a rematch of the 2018 3rd Congressional District race when she won her first term.

Young is running on a campaign to limit taxes and regulations. “We must keep taxes low and more of a worker’s paycheck in their own pockets,” Young says on his website. “Now is not the time to add pain to any families struggling to make their budget.”

Eric Burmeister is executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. (Photo courtesy of Polk County Housing Trust Fund)

Burmeister said Iowa’s state government is getting federal aid to renters and landlords more quickly than most states. But he added that state and local agencies need to push for expanded affordable housing because many families are paying too much of their income for rent, he added. As evidence, he noted increased demand at food pantries.

Burmeister briefly mentioned policy challenges illuminated by President Donald Trump’s tweet on Wednesday in which he used language Burmeister said came from “redlining,” the act of housing discrimination through lending practices. 

“The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me. They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long-running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood. Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with (U.S. Sen. Cory) Booker in charge!” the president tweeted.

“It’s not political, it’s more,” Burmeister said. “And when we have the leadership at (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) and the president talking about bringing back redlining and exclusion of people without means from places in this country for those places’ own protection, we have crossed a line that as a housing advocate, I simply cannot abide,” Burmeister said of Trump’s comments. 

Axne responded, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m sorry to hear that that came out this morning. That’s really terrible rhetoric.” After pausing briefly, she added, “You know, I’m going to leave it at that.” 

Head shot of Cindy Axne
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne is a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.

A poll taken in late July by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist found 66% of suburban women disapproved of the job President Trump is doing overall, and 58% said they “strongly” disapprove.

Axne said much of the talk in the House is looking for ways to address housing and other infrastructure needs, especially broadband, at the same time.

Iowa developers called for more aid and noted that some shovel-ready projects are languishing due to a lack of federal support.

Kris Saddoris, vice president of multifamily development for Hubbell Realty Co., said her firm was ready to built 106 rural homes, 233 homes for seniors and 166 for families but “we didn’t have the resources.” Federal aid for the projects ran out, she told Axne. 

“We know that as we are doing housing in rural Iowa, we also are providing offices, but that is not going to happen because of the shortage of funding,” Saddoris said. “Also, tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story. Affordable housing still gets a bad rap, unfortunately, but we need to educate (people about) the role that it plays in both rural and urban communities,” Saddoris said. 

JB Conlin, chief operating officer of Conlin Properties, said free internet service should be required in new affordable housing developments.

Axne said negotiations continue in an attempt to end a stalemate over what many see as the final COVID-related stimulus package from Congress.