Speakers: American Rescue Plan is a chance to match jobs with affordable housing

By: - August 17, 2021 3:52 pm

The American Rescue Plan is a chance to improve affordable housing, panelists said Tuesday. (Photo by Matt Donders on Unsplash)

The American Rescue Plan’s housing assistance gives the Des Moines metro area a chance to address affordable housing issues long neglected by voters and to some extent local officials, Greater Des Moines Partnership panelists said Tuesday. 

“We’re in a watershed moment right here and nationally,” said Kris Saddoris, vice president for multifamily development at Hubbell Realty Co. “The American Rescue Plan money is a generational opportunity and I guarantee you I am running towards that. This is crazy money. We have a huge opportunity.”

The American Rescue Plan, backed by President Joe Biden and Congress as a form of pandemic relief, contains a list of housing initiatives. Included in the spending: $21.5 billion in emergency rental assistance, $10 billion for a homeowner assistance fund, $5 billion for emergency housing vouchers, and $5 billion to assist homeless people. 

As major developments take shape in the metro area, developers need to simultaneously address the housing needs of people who will work in the new facilities, speakers said. And local officials need to know that affordable housing isn’t just a problem for Des Moines, the capital city in the middle of the metro area. 

Teree Caldwell-Johnson is CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood and a Des Moines School Board member. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines schools)

Teree Caldwell-Johnson is a former Ames assistant city manager and former Polk County manager who now runs Oakridge Neighborhood, a large subsidized housing complex in central Des Moines. 

Caldwell-Johnson said affordable housing has struggled going back to the early 1960s, when voters rejected two referenda designed to do something about the shortage. 

Voters twice rejected public housing

“For whatever reason, our community determined that we did not want public housing,” Caldwell-Johnson said. She added that church leaders applied for the federal support that started Oakridge.

“I think it’s interesting that 50 years hence, one of the top issues we’re discussing in our communities is affordable housing in a place where we said we didn’t need it. We didn’t want it. We’ve come full circle,” Caldwell-Johnson said. 

In addition to making sure workers taking jobs at megadevelopments have an affordable place to live, Caldwell-Johnson, a long-time Des Moines school board member, said the community needs to assure schools are planned to serve the new families.

As leaders of the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority have pointed out for years, affordable housing should be located near large employment centers like Jordan Creek Town Center, but it isn’t. It also is important for public transit to be properly funded to serve workers commuting to jobs, they have said. 

Some job sites lack local affordable housing

Caldwell-Johnson said the urban core has 15% fewer jobs than it needs, and the suburbs have a surplus of 9%. “But where’s the affordable housing in the suburbs? We don’t have any,” Caldwell-Johnson said. “So we have people living in the urban core, having to use public transit and a variety of means to get to work to these jobs that are being developed in the suburbs with no hope of affordable housing being developed in those parts of the community,” Caldwell-Johnson said. 

Local officials are discussing those issues, she added.

I think it’s interesting that 50 years hence, one of the top issues we’re discussing in our communities is affordable housing in a place where we said we didn’t need it.

– Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO, Oakridge Neighborhood

Consultant studies have suggested the Des Moines area needs 20,000 more affordable housing units. 

Lance Henning, president and executive director of Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity, said other cities have worked through zoning and other measures to make it easier to build affordable housing. 

Tuesday’s session was moderated by Matt Hauge of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. This podcast explores related issues.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

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.