By Abbie Gaffey, Community Development Specialist
Your house is now everything – your home, your office, your kids’ school. Turns out, if you spend months on end in your house, the importance of quality, affordable, and safe housing that meets your lifestyle needs is top of mind.
Add in all the news about housing: looming foreclosures and evictions, houses lost to derechos, historically low mortgage interest rates, and suddenly housing is something that matters more than ever. However, with everything going on, who has time to focus on community housing needs? Well, if you are socially distancing and Zooming all day anyway, it’s a perfect time to evaluate and plan for a different future.
At least that’s how it turned out for Ida Grove. Way back in the olden days before COVID-19, Ida Grove agreed to pilot the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment program being offered by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Community Economic Development (CED) in cooperation with the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Community Development Block Grant technical assistance fund. The RHRA program is a series of workshops bringing community leaders together to examine their local housing statistical data, learn about the types of housing other Iowa communities are having success with in addressing their housing needs, engaging with their town’s residents about the type of new housing they’d like to see developed in their community, and drafting a strategic plan and action plan to implement their ideas.
Unable to meet face-to-face, the program was quickly converted for virtual delivery. While college students are used to sitting through classes, adults quickly zone out on Zoom, so the CED team had to amp up these virtual classes to be more engaging, more interactive, and livelier while still covering the subject matter and producing a plan at the end. To do that, the team built in polling questions, breakout rooms, questions to be answered in chat boxes, and facilitated conversations.
“The breakout sessions with participants and ISU were fun and made the process even more enjoyable!” said Heather Sweeden, Ida Grove city clerk and RHRA participant. “The breakouts made it fun and interactive, which I enjoy much more than just listening.”
Using an interactive tool called Miro, CED staff members were operating in the background capturing the participants answers and ideas on a virtual white board while other staff members were engaging with the participants and leading the conversation. The level of interactive engagement kept participants on their toes.
“I really enjoyed the process, even though COVID kept us online versus meeting in person. It was an interesting experience while taxing at times it helped the participants consolidate the vision of our community and helped clarify the true housing needs of Ida Grove,” says Ida Grove mayor Devlun Whiteing. “The staff of the ISU Extension ensured the process was a truly collaborative effort in putting all the pieces of our puzzle together. Additionally, they facilitated the process through guidance based on their real-life experience and extensive study of the topics and issues.”
While most communities have engaged in housing plans through housing needs assessments and comprehensive plans, sometimes plans have stalled after the low hanging fruit has been accomplished and the tasks become harder. The Rural Housing Readiness Assessment program workbook that is used as part of the workshop sessions provides a checklist of programs, resources, ordinances, policies, services, and infrastructure that communities need to have in place for the more complicated types of housing development to happen.
“The idea of bringing different folks that collaborated on this project together was great in and of itself,” says Rita Frahm, director of Ida County Economic Development. “Our first choice would have been to do it face to face, but people who participated this way learned things that they didn’t know existed. It was good to get ideas out on the table. The amount of planning the city has done has set them up to move forward – ready to move a project forward and setting them up for success.”
Ida Grove is one of seven cities in the first set of RHRA program recipients. The other communities engaging with this program are Manning, Creston, Stanton, Central City, Springville, and Keokuk. Another round of applications will be available in September through the Empower Rural Iowa office of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Communities are asked to pay a $5,000 fee up front but receive a grant for $10,000 upon completion of the program. The funds can be used to move forward with a project resulting from their planning efforts, such as hiring an architect to determine if an existing building is suitable for conversion to multifamily housing, an engineer to survey a possible subdivision, or to put toward the purchase of land, for example.
Communities interested in applying in the next round of funding are asked to contact Jon Wolseth, ISU Extension and Outreach community development specialist, (515) 509-0558, email@example.com or Liesl Seabert, Empower Rural Iowa director, (515) 348-6154, rural@iowaedacom.