The population living literally homeless on the street in Linn County has increased 230% from July 2019 to July 2022.
That’s a shocking increase. When we look at the why behind the increase, it quickly becomes clear that housing, and access to it, is a complex issue.
“We have been discussing that there is an affordable housing crisis coming to Iowa for many years – and now that crisis is really here. It has arrived,” said Stephanie Murphy, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Finance Corporation.
In 2020, a derecho devastated Linn County and its effects compounded existing housing issues that were already exacerbated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Through both events, Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster (LAP-AID) identified that housing was a significant issue that needed a solution. And so, LAP-AID made a call to action stating a group needed to form to look at housing issues and how we might solve them. A group of key stakeholders came together in response to the disaster to address the on-going housing issues in Linn County resulting in the creation of the Alliance for Equitable Housing.
What is the Alliance?
The Alliance for Equitable Housing is a multi-jurisdictional collaboration--led by Linn County—among cities, local funders, advocacy groups, and non-profits working in the housing system. The Alliance for Equitable Housing is developing a comprehensive housing solutions plan, with tangible action steps, to identify solutions for each of the housing issues identified by the community . The Alliance will create the plan by leveraging and aligning existing work and programs first before trying to create something new. By keeping people and organizations ‘in their lane’ and focusing on where they have expertise, we can leverage the collective and collaborative power of the Alliance.
The first step this newly formed group took was to have conversations with the community to complete a SWOT analysis and identify the key issues and solutions for the housing system in Linn County. Over the course of a few months, the Alliance had approximately 20 different conversations with community committees and coalitions.
Four key issues were identified from the conversations and information gathering:
1. Housing Quality, Resiliency, and Efficiency
The top issue the Alliance identified through community conversations is poor housing quality. This may be surprising as much of the public conversation is around the lack of affordable housing, which is an issue but unless we take steps to preserve the housing stock, we have making it more resilient, we will continue to lose housing.
In the week following the August 2020 derecho, more than 1,000 housing units within the City of Cedar Rapids alone were deemed ‘unlivable’ per a report by the Iowa Economic Development Agency.
2. Housing Development/Scarcity of Units
Community conversations also identified a lack of affordable housing as a significant issue in the community that was made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic and the August 2020 derecho.
In a conversation with local businesses, they stated that lack of housing units was a significant concern of theirs and that they may lose the ability to recruit top talent to live and work in the area. There is a scarcity of units from very low-cost affordable housing all the way up to CEO-level housing.
3. Access to Housing & Homelessness
With scarcity in the housing market, those with challenging backgrounds including a poor credit history, eviction history, or low income, have a very difficult time competing for available units. And when competition is this tough, people either need to relocate to another community or are faced with homelessness.
The population experiencing homelessness has been deeply impacted by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the August 2020 derecho. The population living literally homeless on the street count has increased 230% from July 2019 to July 2022. Homeless service providers are stating that the interventions that worked five years ago are no longer meeting the needs they see today. Shelter is an important life saving measure, but it does not end homelessness – only housing can end homelessness.
The housing issues identified above will have different impacts and meaning based upon a person's race, ethnicity, gender, age, and/or disability. The issue of housing equity in Linn County was noted repeatedly through conversations particularly for seniors, persons with a disability, immigrant and refugee populations, and people of color.
Now that the Alliance for Equitable Housing has identified a framework and key issues to address, the Action Planning groups are forming and identifying solutions based on issues identified by the community. As solutions are identified, they will be vetted by key stakeholders and the Alliance will work to make them a reality in Linn County.
For more information about the work of the Alliance for Equitable Housing, take a look at this presentation shared with the Linn County Board of Supervisors. Additional updates from the Alliance will be shared on Linn County’s social media pages and website as they become available.