Affordable housing push pays off

by Dale Kueter, Gazette staff writer

The Gazette, Apr. 9, 1995

Mary Schoen-Clark rattles off housing statistics, unrolls drawings and points to building projects marked by color-coded pins on a city map like the development guru she is.

She hammers away at the need for affordable housing in Cedar Rapids like a contractor pushing a new subdivision.

Schoen-Clark is president and CEO of the Metro Area Housing Program (MAHP). MAHP, headquartered at Ninth Avenue SE near the river, is not a fancy place. On the outside it looks like a World War II bomber hangar.

Looks deceive. In a mere three years, Schoen-Clark and MAHP have built an enviable record: 68 apartment units rented to families; 14 distressed houses acquired and renovated for rent or sale; 62 apartment units under construction; 123 more being planned.

“Our biggest challenge has been to get people to understand we’re not creating the projects or Cabrini Green,” she says, referring to big-city housing efforts with big-problem reputations. “Until two years ago there was a strong anti-affordable housing feeling in this city.”

The climate today is much improved. Schoen-Clark, MAHP board members and financial advisers have convinced civic leaders that affordable housing is a major need.

The economic profile of Cedar Rapids, she says, is significantly different than it was a decade ago. Manufacturing jobs with good wages and benefits have been replaced by lower-paying service industry jobs.

“If your pay is $6 to $8 an hour and you don’t have health care coverage, you can be in big trouble.” Housing that is affordable for these people, she says, is scarce.

“We have no vacancies,” says Schoen-Clark.

MAHP is a non-profit agency that acquires dilapidated houses — often abandoned — that can be fixed up. It rents the houses, or, working with banks, helps arrange sales — sometimes with reduced mortgage rates.

To bring down the price, MAHP retains the land and leases it to the buyer for 99 years.

Using a three percent state loan, it acquired and revamped the old 16-unit Brown Apartments at Twelfth Street and Fourth Avenue SE.

MAHP is developing Agin Court, a new complex of six eight-plex apartment buildings off Blairs Ferry Road NE near Hiawatha. The 4.3 acres were donated by AEGON USA. A combination of state loans, a federal grant and local bank loan are being used for financing. The city donated sewer lines and granted a 10-year tax abatement on buildings.

MAHP obtained a grant and was the catalyst in Hill Top Manor, a 54-unit subsidized housing apartment for the elderly in Marion. The complex, 439 Lindale Dr., is owned by a non-profit group and managed by MAHP.

MAHP has acquired the old five-story Witwer warehouse at 905 Third St. SE and will convert it into 67 two- and three-bedroom apartments. Work will begin in June.