Sprouting rooftops

By ART CULLEN

Storm Lake has housing needs at every level. Every survey and every task force and every city council work session shouts it. We all know it. We need cheap housing for the working poor, starter homes for young families, executive homes in the upper ranges that free up stock in the middle ranges. We need it all. Tyson Foods probably would add more jobs, its pork plant manager says, if The City Beautiful had more accessible housing.

We have long expressed our philosophical reservations about low-income housing tax credits. They are awarded by the federal government to developers, who then sell them to investors to offset their tax liabilities. We are subsidizing the developers, the investor class and a relatively low wage scale. Someone working full-time in America should not need a subsidy for a decent place to live.

But they do need the subsidies to sprout rooftops. We don’t like it. We are resigned to it.

Our understanding is that 170 people working at Tyson in Storm Lake drive more than 30 miles to work here, and would live here if they could find a place they could afford.

Every city council for the past 20 years has made affordable and decent housing a priority.

City Hall is starting to deliver on that priority.

Thanks to the work of city administration, a lot of cultivation is just now bearing sprouts. Foutch Brothers are developing South School into apartments, if they can get historic tax credits through the state. The Kansas City firm also is poised to develop apartments and condos at Sunset Bay, with tax incentives from the city. City Manager Jim Patrick and Assistant Manager Kari Navratil have been able to potentially activate two empty properties that had been languishing — especially Sunset Bay. We have chipped our teeth over the fallow concrete foundation next to the municipal golf course for years. So it’s only right to give them a thumbs up for moving these properties on as favorable terms as state law and city code allow.

On Monday an interchange between Councilman Tyson Rice and MBL Development over a $7 million apartment project started wandering in the weeds until the MBL representative, Kim Lingle, walked out of the council meeting in exasperation. He said he will take his project to Webster City.

Given the current housing crimp — some call it a crisis — we’re not sure we can afford to run off developers even if they are using subsidies. Again, we don’t like the low-income credit. But we are subsidizing agriculture and industry in every conceivable way. Until we can figure out how to make the Storm Lake housing market work under the rules of Economics 101 — pay people enough so they can put a roof over their heads and food in their bellies — we will have to accept subsidized housing in some form.

Don’t blame the city administration for not trying. It is presenting the council with strong developers who are using common programs.

If we don’t want to subsidize the working class through housing credits and multi-family dwellings then the executive class might find its calf to cut is not so fat. We won’t sell as many cars or newspapers or college degrees. Storm Lake has grown because of unskilled and semi-skilled labor, primarily. This is not Tahoe. It’s not Orange City. It is Storm Lake, the food processing center of Iowa. It’s what we do. Our community infrastructure and fortunes are built around food processing. We have to house these people in dwellings they can afford. Empty developments have been platted for years in The City Beautiful. It took Chet Brecher a lifetime to fill up West Lake Estates. We can’t wait a lifetime for hard-working folks to find a place to live, if we indeed want them to work here.

We need more housing.

MBL had a plan. Does anybody else? One that will work in a rural, isolated and growing meatpacking center?

 

A better approach

The other council priority over the past two decades has been lake restoration and protection. The city has done more work than any in the Upper Midwest for storm water containment. Tyson Foods has been a major partner in trying to protect the lake. One of the storm water projects fortuitously turned into a housing plat. It’s all to the good. Dredging, on the other hand, has been a nightmare the past couple years. We have complained plenty about that. We think they are running too hard to make up for lost time.

In reaction, city officials responsible for the dredge operations turned inward rather than trying to communicate their challenges clearly with the public and its partners, most importantly the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Patrick is attempting to turn that around. He has become more accessible. He appears to be taking on the challenge directly and trying to communicate to the public where the operation stands. The public is deeply invested for fiscal and emotional reasons. When that dredge shuts down alarm bells go off from this office to the fishing boat near the Big Island. People demand to know what is going on in the best public works project of their lifetimes in this town.

Patrick’s more open and inclusive response should make the waters less roiled. Getting the dredge operation right is easier when everyone — including that guy searching for Mr. Whiskers in a 30 mph gale — is operating from the same page.