Many of those working to solve Iowa City’s need for more affordable housing agree that a regional policy for Coralville, North Liberty and other communities in addition to Iowa City would be beneficial.

Individual policies, such as specific design standards, already work against cities in some cases. If Iowa City were to add more regulations for developers, such as requiring them to provide a certain amount of affordable housing, it could prove even more detrimental to growth.

Glenn Siders, vice president of Southgate Development Services, pointed to neighborhood meetings as an example of how different approaches among cities can change the outcome of a development project.

“In Iowa City, it is recommended that we have a neighborhood meeting,” he said. “It is our responsibility to generate the meeting, make the contacts and set it up. Sometimes the city would be present, sometimes not, but they’re a neutral, bipartisan observer.

“In North Liberty, however, the city sets up the meeting. They have a neighborhood discussion, and the city will be part of the discussion. It makes a difference when the public hears that from the municipality as opposed to a private sector.”

The Johnson County Council of Governments, or JCCOG, a metropolitan planning organization for the greater Iowa City area, recently met to discuss ways in which local communities could work together to approach housing issues and, in September 2010, developed a list of recommendations. The most popular idea was that of creating a consortium of federal funds that could be used by any of the participating municipalities. The funds would benefit smaller communities that would not be able to leverage the same amount of funding on their own.

Other suggestions made by the JCCOG task force were similar to those already being discussed at the individual city level.

The group discussed inclusionary zoning — both voluntary and mandatory — but did not vote on the issue. Most members agreed that such a policy would have to be implemented on a regional, rather than city, level to be effective.

“To make affordable housing programs of any type work, it needs to be done on a regional basis,” said Siders, who has represented the for-profit homebuilders industry on a number of such boards and committees. “Iowa City just can’t do their thing. Coralville can’t do their thing. North Liberty can’t do their thing. You have to look at it on a regional approach.”

In November, in an effort to work toward an affordable housing solution, the Iowa City Council directed staff to develop a new system for identifying appropriate locations for affordable and assisted housing units, this time using geographic informational system, or GIS, mapping.

“The goal is to guide the city’s decision-making process, but it’s also to guide those who submit applications,” Hayek said. “It’s not in anyone’s best interest to needlessly spend time on something that’s not going to be approved.”

Current discussions on where new affordable housing should be located were sparked in part by debate over a recent development proposal from The Housing Fellowship. The fellowship planned to build a housing complex with up to six individual units on Muscatine Avenue near First Avenue, but a split city council voted against approving grant funding for the project, citing the negative impact it could have on local schools.

City Planner Jeff Davidson said using the new mapping system would allow for more accurate information to be used and would not be limited by census tract or school district attendance lines.

“By using this GIS-based system, we’ll be able to bring data that really is representative of where that location is,” he said.

Davidson acknowledged that the new system would not necessarily help increase the amount of affordable or assisted housing in Iowa City.

In the face of criticism regarding its inaction on the issue, the city council likely could take up the discussion of quantity next, Hayek said.

“I see that as a future council discussion point,” he said. “There is no broad timeline, but there is enough momentum for the council to take it up in 2011. This has been talked about for years, but I think there is sufficient interest in the council now to take it up.”

City staff is in the process of designing the new mapping program to identify where to locate assisted housing projects.

They hope to discuss it at a council work session on Jan. 31.

(This project was collaboration of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and, the non-profit news website of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. The Press-Citizen’s features editor and specialty publications manager, Tricia Brown, edited the project, and its photographer, Benjamin Roberts, took the photographs. IowaWatch Staff Writer Lauren Mills designed the IowaCenter’s page layout)

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