In preparation for creating a new strategic plan in 2013, the Iowa West Foundation engaged in a series of listening sessions in the community. Housing emerged as a major theme of these discussions. The final report from these sessions states: Housing was a huge issue, manifesting as a need for quality housing across all price levels, but particularly in the low to middle income brackets, with an emphasis on the need for more quality rentals available and single family dwellings.
While the report makes it clear that housing is a serious concern, it was not clear what we needed to do to address it. So, during 2014, the Iowa West Foundation Board asked the Foundation staff to research this question and bring back recommendations on how we can play a role addressing the housing challenges.
The listening sessions were a jumping off point for the research. We also met with our past and current grantees conducting housing programs to understand the challenges through their eyes. We looked back over the studies we funded, those done by our partners, and reviewed national research on housing. We even read through 19 years of grant reports to try to understand the impact we’ve had with our partners on housing.
Our biggest finding? As a community, we don’t have good data on housing.
For example, we have many reports on the need for affordable housing in Council Bluffs, but the reports tend to rehash census data regarding income levels and average housing costs. What is noticeably absent are recommendations on how to improve affordable housing.
Even looking at our own grant impact reports, the information is very limited. This makes it difficult for us to even understand the full results of our past projects. What we do know is that over 19 years, we have funded 61 housing projects for a total of $11.8 million. We know that we have supported the creation of 426 new housing units (many of which were affordable) and over 400 repairs to homes for low income individuals.
One surprising statistic is that in this same period of time, the Foundation’s funding accounts for only 4 percent of all housing funding in Council Bluffs. Learning that helped us to frame our work around the following question: If we are a small but significant player in housing in Council Bluffs, how do we focus our investment to have the biggest impact?
With that in mind, we looked at the challenges revealed through our research. The housing stock in Council Bluffs is declining. The costs of homeownership have, for many individuals, risen faster than their incomes. This results in deferred maintenance in many of our homes (which as housing gets worse, values decline, and owners lose the value from their homes). It also means that it is increasingly difficult to build affordable houses.
We also learned about a number of “pain points” in the development process. These include the difficulty of attracting exciting design into the community, not having a lead organization responsible for advocating for strong, new projects in and outside the city, and a tension between developing for current and future residents.
The Iowa West Foundation Board reviewed the findings of this research at their March meeting. They agreed that the Foundation’s housing investments should be focused on achieving two outcomes –
• Helping more families achieve stable housing, and
• Increasing the investment in our housing stock.
These outcomes were incorporated into a strategy that the board set to focus our program for greater impact. This strategy is discussed below, but you can see slides from the presentation here.
The strategy identifies four types of projects that Iowa West will support through its grants program. They are projects that…
1. Provide a safety net to vulnerable families. We want to ensure that vulnerable families are able to be resilient in the face of economic shocks and to prevent them from experiencing homelessness.
2. Increase mixed-income rental opportunities. There is a lot of research that supports mixed-income development as a way to balance the needs of current and future residents without the negative impacts associated with concentrated affordable housing. Concentrating affordable housing tends to have a negative impact on neighbors. Much of the funding that is available to developers makes it difficult to do make these mixed-income projects financially possible. As a private foundation, we are uniquely positioned to support these projects and make them possible.
3. Promote redevelopment with strong design. There are a number of properties in the community that we want to see redeveloped to a productive use. We are proponents of strong design that fits with the character of existing neighborhoods and makes for attractive places in the community. We are strong opponents of a “good enough” attitude that will allow for unattractive development.
4. Promote Successful Ownership. A successful homeowner tends to contribute to their neighborhood and experiences the pride of ownership. The foundation will continue to fund ownership programs. However, we will now be working with applicants to analyze if their clients are being setup for success. And, we will no longer be funding the projects that cannot demonstrate this.
At the Foundation, we will continue to review and refine this strategy as we work with our grantees to develop better and better information on housing.
For now, if you have a great idea for a program in one of these areas, I encourage you to reach out to me to discuss your idea. If you have an idea that falls outside of these areas, do not worry – there are still many great funding sources that can support your program.