Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Des Moines Register. April 24, 2022.

Editorial: Editorial: Bring every resource to bear to make housing more affordable

No single entity can make more than a dent in realizing a vision for adequately housing every Iowan. Collective action is needed, and Iowans should demand it.

Businesses and governments in Iowa have made news this year for initiatives to make it easier for Iowans to find housing they can afford.

Polk County designated over $15 million of federal COVID-19 money toward developing affordable units; state government has also used relief money for similar purposes. Wells Fargo will donate over half a million dollars toward Iowa Legal Aid’s Eviction Diversion Project. GreenState Credit Union has set a target for increasing loans to people of color.

Those and other efforts are commendable. They recognize that everyone benefits when adequate shelter is available to everybody and when nobody must choose either to spend upward of half their income on housing or go without.

That aspiration is, of course, very far from what we experience now. It will take sustained effort to change that.

Affordable housing is a national crisis. Forty-nine percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in October called the availability of affordable housing where they live a major problem; in early 2018, that figure was 39%. This is a topic that will animate political campaigns for years to come.

Maps and tables that show less severe shortages in Iowa and Des Moines than in other states and cities should not provide solace; instead, they should serve as motivation for collective action now. One group, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says Iowa has just 42 affordable and available homes for each 100 households making less than 30% of the median income.

There’s no silver-bullet solution in sight. Businesses that pay family-supporting wages are part of the equation, of course. Policymakers and business and nonprofit leaders — and voters — should consider some broad principles to foster improvement in the years ahead and avoid making problems worse:

Be aggressive in removing local obstacles

Zoning regulations and regional planning in cities are vital, of course, but they can also function as insurmountable red tape for needed development. The Des Moines City Council last week slowed plans to expand where the city allows accessory dwelling units — essentially housing attached to or on the land of another house.

Councilors are being prudent in ensuring the ordinance change will produce the desired results. But in general, local governments must not let caution thwart innovation.

Take a hard look at local budgets

Two excellent uses of COVID-19 aid from Congress have been spurring development of affordable housing and assisting renters who lost income during the pandemic.

Investment in affordable housing will remain necessary after the COVID money is gone, however. Moving forward, city councils and boards of supervisors will need to figure out grants, loans or other incentives within their budgets.

Signal the state’s commitment

During not quite five years in office, Gov. Kim Reynolds has issued nine executive orders (they are distinct from her public health emergency proclamations), almost all dealing with forming task forces to research big-picture initiatives such as children’s mental health, flood recovery and carbon sequestration. While the editorial board and other critics have quibbled with the focus and recommendations of some panels, the premise is sound government. The next executive order should create an Affordable Housing Task Force.

While state lawmakers await a final report, they can go back to work on advancing tenants’ rights, particularly after an overhaul of the mobile home law now on Reynolds’ desk pleased nobody expect mobile home manufacturers. Legislators should also restore to cities the ability to require landlords to accept prospective tenants who are using federal housing choice vouchers, known as Section 8.

Give incomes a boost through federal policy

Congress’ work is important to Iowa’s efforts as well. Grants and other appropriations can help on the supply side. But perhaps more important is advancing legislation that pulls Americans out of poverty and helps families stretch their incomes.

Opponents of subsidized developments or artificially reduced rents could instead advocate for more progressive taxation and social services policies.

More specifically, it’s not too late for senators to get on board with the Build Back Better proposal’s extension of the expanded child tax credit, paid out monthly from July to December 2021. The Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University said child poverty increased to 17% in January, the first month without the monthly payments, from 12% in December.

Experts say the ability to deduct mortgage interest from federal taxes is another major factor in perpetuating inequity. Congress can think big here, too, and find a way to give renters a break.

No single entity can make more than a dent in realizing a vision for adequately housing every Iowan. Collective action is needed, and Iowans should demand it.