Entire community has a stake in affordable housing

Steve Caves is president and CEO of Firstar Bank and chairman of the Metro Area Housing Program.

The Gazette, Aug. 6, 1995

In a recent Gazette story on the shortage of affordable housing in Eastern Iowa, Rita Seymour pointed out the problems created by the shortage. They include difficulty in creating new jobs, strain on school systems and the decline of downtown businesses.

This story was followed by an Associated Press story that reported an unprecedented lack of affordable housing nationwide. The article quoted a study by the Center on Budget and Priorities that found nearly two low-income renters for every available low-rent apartment.

What this report did not point out was that low-income renters include working families. In the 1990s, the service sector is creating a majority of the new job opportunities for our youth and for our young families. These families receive lower wages and fewer benefits than in the past but are required to pay more for their housing than ever before. This situation affects the entire community, not just these few particular families. Successful businesses must have stable employees who are focused on their work rather than facing the possibility of being displaced. This is especially true for new companies and service-sector corporations that depend on employees who are paid entry-level wages. Simply put, these corporations cannot afford to open or relocate in a community in which their employees can’t find or keepĀ a place to live.

Schools directly benefit from the availability of affordable housing through lower transfer rates and more consistent student attendance. Families that frequently move from one school district to another create additional costs for the school system and risk negative educational outcomes for their children.

In the new global economy, quality education and training will be essential if our community is to prosper. As a community, we need to recognize the key role that housing plays and commit ourselves to an ongoing investment in our affordable housing stock. This is essential if we want to live in safe communities that nurture families and create opportunities for economic growth.

Cedar Rapids, along with other Linn County communities, is more fortunate than the rest of Eastern Iowa because it already has a vehicle for developing and maintaining affordable housing. The Metro Area Housing Program (MAHP) is a private non-profit corporation whose sole purpose is the development of affordable housing.

In only three years, MAHP has created over 160 units of rental housing and 15 single-family homes for first-time home buyers. Although 30 percent of the families that MAHP serves are considered very low income ($13,590 annually for a family of four), 65 percent of the families MAHP serves have incomes equal to 50 percent of the median area income, $22,300 annually for a family of four.

No matter how successful MAHP has been in its first three years, it cannot continue to create affordable housing without significant community support. This is particularly urgent because of almost certain cuts in federal housing programs. Communities unwilling to increase the availability of affordable housing at this time will pay a much greater price in terms of troubled schools, stalled economic growth and deteriorating neighborhoods.