Opinion: Johnson County wrong to halt affordable housing project

Clinton Dimambu, center, a French translator and Escucha Mi Voz volunteer, helps meatpacking and farm workers fill out applications for relief money on Dec. 21, 2022, inside the Iowa City Catholic Worker House.

By Guest Post

April 12, 2024

The following is an open letter from Escucha Mi Voz leaders to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. Read a Johnson County supervisor’s response here.

Escucha Mi Voz Iowa members urge you to immediately restore and restart the $1.5 million ARPA-funded affordable housing project you halted on April 3 without public notice or input.

You state the county can’t meet ARPA compliance requirements. There has never been a more flexible use of federal housing funds, and using them may be the only way to guarantee the long-term affordability of the project.

On March 5, the U.S. Department of Treasury significantly expanded the presumed eligibility guidelines for ARPA-funded affordable housing developments. Presumed eligible projects now include any and all developments that will house working families earning up to 120% of area median income (AMI) for at least 20 years.

For other federal programs, affordable housing funding is capped for project tenants living at or below 65% AMI. Using ARPA to invest in a 120% AMI project is a historic and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand affordable housing options to the broadest range of Johnson County residents possible.

Swapping out ARPA funding for another source is not a real alternative unless there is also an equal guarantee that the project will still be affordable to tenants at or below 120% AMI for 20 years. Without these guarantees, the county could claim the mantle of affordable housing while still charging market rate rent like any other landlord.

Federal rules state affordable housing owners can charge rent equal to 30 percent of a tenant’s income. It is in the county’s best interest to leverage the expanded ARPA eligibility guidelines to finance a 120% AMI project.

Doing so would guarantee the long term affordability of the project for an expanded universe of Johnson County residents and generate nearly twice as much revenue for the project owner as a 65% AMI project.

If the county will not reverse course, we urge you to be transparent about how the $1.5 million in unencumbered ARPA will be spent. The county has already kept millions of ARPA dollars for itself, by claiming you lost revenue in the pandemic and through the creation of new administrative positions. If the county intends to reallocate this $1.5 million to internal capacity or planning, you have a responsibility to clearly explain your new plan to the public and other stakeholders.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition called on city and county governments to stabilize households with direct assistance payments and to invest an equal amount in transformational new affordable housing projects.

According to a new report, Salud, Techo, y Trabajo, over a third of essential immigrant and refugee workers in Johnson County chronically experience homelessness, including more than half of Latino households, by doubling up occupancy in order to survive.

Overcrowded and substandard housing is a structural determinant of health that contributes to the spread of Covid-19 in essential workers whose labor keeps our economy moving. We applaud the county for increasing investments in the General Assistance Program but as you know, many immigrant workers, families, and children are excluded from accessing it.

Essential immigrant workers need permanent supportive housing and workforce development projects specifically tailored to our unique community needs. Now is the time to double ARPA investments in affordable housing for front-line workers, not take it away.

We appreciate our past collaboration with Johnson County to create and launch the direct assistance program. We look forward to working with you again to accomplish our mutually shared goals of promoting the common good and general welfare of county residents through deeply affordable housing for workers.

Thank you for all your leadership on this issue. We hope to hear from you about more ARPA-funded affordable housing soon.

Sincerely,

Clinton Dimambu, Manny Galvez, David Goodner
Escucha Mi Voz Iowa

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