What A Difference One Local Iowa Election Is Making

Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2016 issue of  The Prairie Progressive.

by Jesse Case

There’s a guy I know. You probably don’t know him. I don’t know a lot of people you know. I may not even know you. But this guy I know is a Mexican dude who lives in Forest View Trailer Park. When he found out his trailer park had been sold to make room for Iowa City’s newest gateway project, he helped organize a tenants’ association. The tenants’ association started meeting with the developers who had already promised to relocate trailers for free just on the other side of the property to make room for a giant hotel and more. The tenants association came up with some principles that the developers agreed to. Principles like new housing costs shouldn’t be more than previous housing costs and the rights of tenants to organize should be respected.

The tenants told the developers they appreciated their offer to move the trailers but many of the trailers couldn’t be moved and hadn’t been moved in decades. The tenants told the developers they thought it made sense to have small permanent homes they could call their own. Small permanent homes would improve people’s lives. It would improve the value of the neighborhood and gateway project. It would keep the neighborhood together. The developers thought this all sounded good too and everyone agreed to agree. This was maybe the first time this happened ever. Because residents were organized and informed, a new model for preserving affordable housing was being born.

The developers offered to donate the land and start looking for funding revenues to finance the small permanent homes. One idea was having the city finance mortgages for these affordable homes with revenue bonds. This was just one concept. The city would make this money back and then some over the years. The developer put this idea in an email which the tenants turned into a flyer to distribute to their neighbors.

Some people outside the trailer park found out about the concept and were appalled. They were appalled about using taxpayer money to finance low income housing. But they couldn’t say that publicly. That would make them sound like ogres. That would make them sound un-Democratty in a Democratic county. That would make them sound like they were anti-immigrant. They couldn’t say that. So they attacked the content of the flyer and the community organization that helped put it together, suggesting the residents must be “confused” and easily misled by complicated information. It was cute. Some people bought it.

But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the difference between doing something and talking about something. It’s about showing one’s true colors on an issue that’s been talked about for decades. It’s about the uncomfortable position of having to actually be for or against taking tangible action around a public issue when in the past you could always be for it because there was no tangible action to debate. It’s about “Which side are you on?”

Last year when the new city council was elected, it freaked out some people who were used to controlling most city council decisions. Mostly people who were voted out of office or friends of people who were voted out of office. Now they’re going on the attack to protect the status quo, and part of their strategy is to get cute with the facts while attacking every small step the new council takes to address housing issues. And at a moment when low-income resident voices are being heard and considered by policymakers for the first time in years, this crowd’s strategy is to question and try to marginalize those voices at every turn.

Here are the facts. The current Iowa City council has provided relief to dislocated residents of Rose Oaks, hard working community members who, in spite of their contributions to our community, are among the most housing insecure. The current council has put together focus groups with a cross-section of residents to look at how the city should utilize tax increment financing (TIFs). The current council has passed inclusionary zoning ordinance in the Riverfront Crossing Zone to mandate low income housing as part of the overall development. The current council is targeting affordable housing on future TIFs. The current council is acting on the mandate of the majority of voters who cast their ballots in the last election, and the broad coalition of low-income residents and concerned community members who are continuing to organize for real solutions to Iowa City’s affordable housing crisis.

What a difference a year makes. What a difference local elections make. That’s what this article is about. I’ve lived in Iowa City for almost 20 years and people have been talking about the “affordable housing” crisis ever since I can remember. 2016 is the first time I’ve actually seen anything tangible done about affordable housing. This is the first time I remember a real public debate about how to deal with affordable housing in our community. After decades of everyone agreeing there’s a problem, we’re finally debating the solutions.

–Jesse Case is the state political director for the Teamsters

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