Housing advocates see bipartisan boost during pandemic recovery

By: - February 12, 2021 4:48 pm

A proposal in the Iowa House would reduce unemployment benefits starting in 2022. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Affordable housing is getting a bipartisan boost as Iowa leaders push pandemic recovery in a way that will boost the economy overall, advocates say.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne this week won committee approval for $100 million in aid. GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds’ $65 million package of housing tax credits is working through the Iowa Legislature, and in December she earmarked nearly $9 million in CARES Act cash for housing aid

Also, President Joe Biden’s nomination of Democratic former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to serve a second stint as agriculture secretary could mean stronger support for rural development, some housing advocates say. 

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

Legislation that cleared the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday includes $25 billion for emergency rental assistance, $10 billion to support homeowners, and $5 billion for programs to help homeless people nationally. That would include housing counseling services and rural rental assistance, Axne said.

At a virtual town hall Thursday, Axne said housing is a key part of the latest COVID legislation. “Housing is one of the most important aspects of what we’re looking at,” Axne told Iowa housing agency leaders and developers. 

She added that she is working to fight what she called “predatory investors” in manufactured housing. 

“We have been taken advantage of here in Iowa by those corporations who literally are in the business to give investors more money in their pockets at the expense of Iowans and Americans who are just trying to make ends meet,” Axne said. “It’s sickening.” 

Des Moines housing developer Jack Hatch, a former Democratic state lawmaker who lost a campaign for governor against the Branstad-Reynolds ticket, said Reynolds’ housing plan goes beyond previous governors’ plans and deserves support. 

Hatch added that he is encouraging Vilsack “to elevate housing” in discussions about rural development.

“We can’t allow (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) to be the only housing agency in the country,” Hatch said. 

At the state level, agencies now see housing as not only a critical need for families but also an economic issue, Hatch said. 

“The governor’s office and the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority are poised now to understand this problem,” Hatch said. “They are politically engaging Republicans and Democrats to look at this as a real economic issue, as well as a housing issue.” 

Ramon Calzada, executive director of Centro Latino in Council Bluffs, said meatpackers working in Oakland often commute 45 minutes from Council Bluffs or Omaha because of a local housing shortage. “We can’t build housing fast enough,” Calzada said. 

Pam Carmichael, executive director of HOME, Inc. in Des Moines, said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Iowans to look for different housing. Her agency fielded calls from 1,300 tenants in December alone. 

“More than half of them were people who were experiencing extreme difficulty because of COVID and the lack of resources to pay rent,” Carmichael said. The housing counseling agency and affordable housing developer has run out of funds at times, she said.

Axne said work will continue on addressing some of the issues through COVID relief bills.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.