Housing Planning Takes On A Virtual Twist

June 16, 2020

By Abbie Gaffey, Community Development Field Specialist

Screen shot of Rural Housing Readiness Assessment online workshopNeither rain, nor snow, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor pandemic can stop community leaders from envisioning a better future for their communities – even if they have to do it virtually.

Community leaders in Ida Grove are learning about their community’s need for housing while also learning new uses for platforms such as Adobe Connect, Mural virtual strategic planning software, Google Docs, Qualtrics surveys and, of course, Zoom.

Ida Grove is the inaugural community for the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment (RHRA) program that Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Community Economic Development is providing through grants from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and their Empower Rural Iowa division.

The RHRA is a data-driven decision-making program where participating communities learn where to find the information they need, how to interpret the data, and how to incorporate the data into decisions. The program includes a self-study assessment tool that a community uses to find the various policies, ordinances, codes, programs, resources, and rules that guide housing development in their community. After completing the tool, ISU provides an educational workshop exploring the results of the assessment and explaining various aspects of housing market development, giving examples of what other communities in Iowa have successfully used to address their own housing needs. The next step is gathering community input on what types of housing, and at what price points, residents would like to see developed in their town. The program concludes with a co-created strategic plan identifying projects and resources that will help the town achieve its housing goals.

While the RHRA was envisioned to be a face-to-face educational program delivered in participating communities, the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines make it difficult for smaller communities to find gathering spaces to accommodate groups of 25 or larger in a safe manner. Virtual technology allows ISU Extension and Outreach CED a means of safely working with larger groups while modeling how community engagement and planning can be adaptable, interesting, responsive, and collaborative. The unexpected side benefit of the virtual delivery method has been to increase the technological proficiency of community leaders as they use platforms like Zoom and Connect in non-passive ways such as responding to poll questions, working in break out rooms, brainstorming on virtual “sticky walls,” and sharing documents in real time.

IEDA has split the RHRA program into two pools of funding. Communities with a population under 10,000 and with a low- and moderate-income population of 50% or higher are qualified to participate using a Community Development Block Grant. Under this grant, the community pays $1,500 and the IDEA matches with $3,500 toward the $5,000 fee for the program. Communities with populations under 10,000 that do not meet the low-income eligibility threshold can apply through the Empower Rural Iowa office. The cost for the Empower Rural Iowa version is $5,000 from the participating community, but it is matched with $10,000 from Empower Rural Iowa, which the community can use on a housing-related project. Types of things for which the funds could be used might be obtaining a title opinion or survey for an infill housing lot, a feasibility study, hiring an architect to evaluate a possible adaptive reuse of an existing building, or a first-right-of-refusal to purchase land for development.

Both the CDBG and Empower Rural Iowa RHRA programs offer the same workshops, assessment tool, and planning process with the main difference being that the Empower Rural Iowa grant pool requires a competitive application. To apply for the Empower Rural Iowa funding, interested communities should contact Liesl Seabert at 515-348-6154 or rural@iowaeda.com. Communities with a low-moderate income population of 50% can apply directly to ISU Extension and Outreach CED by contacting Jon Wolseth at 515-509-0558 or jwolseth@iastate.edu.