Friday, April 2

Why Mixed Income Housing Needs Our Help

Iowa City residents are rightly concerned that affordable housing policy changes could affect the quality of life in our community. Ironically, most concerns are founded on a misguided belief that balanced mixed income/housing stock neighborhoods are detrimental to overall quality of life.

This in the absence of state and national data that support such reasoning. However, by inaction, de facto higher density neighborhoods of concentrated lower-income housing have been built and this does have ramifications, as we have seen some Iowa City neighborhoods and schools.

The common sense notion is that when housing types are mixed, this lessens concentration areas of less than market-rate housing. Now add educational concerns that are being played out by concentrating lower socioeconomic households.

Would we really be having the discussion about redistricting if there were a balance of housing types available around town? Wouldn't schools have the mixture of all types of students that the district is attempting to move kids around to achieve?

Understandably, it has been politically hard to generate steam to tackle a public policy like voluntary or mandatory inclusionary zoning in earnest.

At the likely risk of being labeled neighborhood destroyers, can anyone fault city officials from removing controversial issues from the table? However it is exactly because of years of non-action regarding needed public policy that is more largely responsible for public outcry to "cease and desist" on some housing developments.

Enacting public policy like inclusionary zoning would likely reduce future problems.

In 2003, FAIR!, which monitors issues of importance to Johnson County residents, submitted a chart that showed a side-by-side comparison of how inclusionary zoning policy was enacted across the country and was used in work sessions by the City Council, in addition to other information that analyzed the housing needs in the Iowa City metropolitan area. In 2004, when the City Council tackled the issue of whether it was a good idea to spread affordable housing out and created a Task Force on Scattered Site Housing, one of the significant findings was that an inclusionary zoning policy was needed to be sure that high concentrations of low income housing would not coalesce in one area of town.

Mayor Hayek was the chair of that committee. To date, no action has taken place on this or other recommendations made to address affordable housing availability.

There are two significant reasons why inclusionary zoning policy has not been broached:

• It is historically unpopular with housing developers who naturally resist being hamstrung by regulation.

• It would cost money or other considerations for the city to implement.

For home builders to step up to create mixed-income developments, it stands to reason that they should be compensated in some way for their community-building efforts. There is no reason to ask the private sector to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Through fast-tracking projects, reducing development fees and other considerations, a sensible inclusionary zoning policy would permit builders to meet their bottom line demands while allowing them to build the highest quality of affordable housing stock.

This, by all measures, would be good for the city's budget by widening the tax base, good for renters and homeowners who would have more housing choices, as well as good for the home building community.

If the City Council is hesitant to consider new policy and wishes to proceed with caution, perhaps a lesson I observed from following the Scattered Site Task Force could be applied.

If scattering housing is good for the community, why not empower the Planning and Zoning Commission -- or a separate appointed group made up of the community's stakeholders -- to explore how it can be best implemented? By carefully walking through the mechanics of what it would take and the cost-benefit of doing so, a policy that works for most may be put into effect.

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