During listening sessions conducted by the Iowa State University Vice President for Extension and Outreach John Lawrence, housing was identified as one of the top five problems affecting communities’ ability to thrive. Listening-session participants suggested that ISU Extension and Outreach do more to help assess local needs.
On July 18, 2018, by executive order, Governor Kim Reynolds created the Investing in Rural Iowa Task Force to address the rural housing shortage in Iowa. One of this task force’s initial recommendations is to “Assist rural Iowa communities in developing actionable housing needs assessments.”
For years, ISU Extension and Outreach Community and Economic Development (CED) program staff have conducted housing needs assessments in Iowa’s communities, often in the wake of natural disasters such as the 2008 flooding in eastern Iowa and the 2011 tornado in Mapleton.
In 2019, CED created the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment, a tool that helps communities self-assess their housing needs and guides them in the decision-making process when addressing those needs.
This assessment was born of an effort by CED specialist Jon Wolseth to identify best practices for improving access to and quality of housing for immigrants and refugees in Polk, Dallas, and Warren Counties. He conducted the project as a member of the housing subcommittee of the New Iowans working group, which is part of the OpportUNITY plan to reduce poverty.
With assistance from Caleb Knutson, an ISU graduate student in community and regional planning, Wolseth gathered existing housing needs assessments and plans for communities in the three counties with the exception of Des Moines. Knutson developed a rubric with which to evaluate those documents. CED specialists Abbie Gaffey and Eric Christianson assisted Wolseth in identifying what information to include in the assessment and where to find it.
In evaluating the documents, Wolseth determined that the information they were discovering is applicable to any population facing housing issues.
“When you plan for the most vulnerable in your community, you plan for everyone,” said Wolseth.
Wolseth first unveiled the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment on April 10, 2019, at the Iowa Rural Development Summit. He then presented an overview of the assessment on May 21 at the Southeast Iowa Housing Conference, an event organized by Pathfinders RC&D, ISU Extension and Outreach, and the University of Iowa, with sponsorship from the Fairfield Economic Development Association, the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, Opportunity Squared, Iowa Housing Partnership, and Alliant Energy.