BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Rolling up on 25 years, Pati Toops has been touting the need to keep public housing viable in Fort Madison.
The local director of the Fort Madison Housing Authority has been advocating for housing for the low income, senior, and physically or mentally disabled residents of Fort Madison.
With close to 134 units, the FMHA has a $600,000 budget and Toops said she gets everything out of the budget she can muster.
She says with the housing authority budget being included in the Department of Defense, budgets are always of concern and any cuts have a huge impact locally. To keep congressional eyes on the situation, Toops and FMHA commissioner Rebecca Bowker trek regularly to state and national conferences to keep lawmakers informed of what is going on locally.
“The budget is always a concern. HUD falls into the department of defense. It’s always a fight to support our community,” Toops said. “Increases in defense spending always give us a red flag. Washington D.C. is a crazy place right now and it’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen.”
She said because so much of her budget comes from federal resources, she stays engaged with Iowa’s congress people to make sure the message is current.
“I’m involved regionally and nationally to keep our congress informed that we need them. Just to remind them that we’re here at home trying to make sure those people have a place to live and a roof over their heads,” she said.
The budget is formulary and subsidies are based on tenants’ age, occupancy, rental capacity, etc.
Toops was recently honored with a Housing Achievement Award given by the state for her years of advocacy and service.
One of her biggest hurdles now getting a full board of commissioners. Toops said she’s been running one short for more than a year and really has been operating two short due to lack of attendance by another member.
“I have a real need for commissioners. The City Council and mayor appoint them and I’m supposed to have five, but I’ve been short for more than a year and one that doesn’t show up regularly. I like to share with my board what’s going on so they can keep tabs on what’s happening. But I really would like to have those positions filled.”
She said two other hurdles she is facing now are transportation and child care. Transportation for residents in the program is limited to SEIBUS for people to get to and from work, which she says is a shortfall. Getting children to and from day care is also an issue.
“If we could get those two issues taken care of that would be a big help. We have issues getting people to work and getting children to day care and if we could get that taken care of that would help us a lot.”
The FMHA has the Hillview Village center on 48th Street, 54 family housing units, and several units they manage as part of the Lee County Housing Initiative that provides homes for the mentally challenged. The FMHA manages those units for the county who owns the properties. The FMHA also oversees Section 8 housing which is local apartments where rent is subsidized by the federal government.
Bowker said she was surprised at how much Toops handles compared to the larger housing authorities in the country.
“One of the things I didn’t realize until I went to DC was that big housing authorities like Chicago or New York have a staff to handle regulations and paperwork. But the same paperwork they have to do, she’s had to do here so we wanted to push to give some of the smaller authorities some relief,” Bowker said. “I’ve always been impressed with Pati and her ability to manage that and deal with the tenants.”
Toops said that is also a message that tries to share on her trips to the capitol and visits with Iowa’s senator and representatives.
“I wear all the hats, whereas in the Chicago Housing Authority, the director oversees and says you do this and you do that, but that’s not the way it works here,” she said.
“We always try to make sure we bring the personal stories out there. If you cut this – or do that – this is the impact that will have on these local people.”
Toops said she believes cuts to the program are coming, but it’s nothing different than the cyclical changes that have been part of the business for the past 25 years. Bowker said it’s a stark reality that budget cuts will leave an impact on local housing needs.
“If Washington D.C. makes decisions to cut her budget, that’s 60 landlords that won’t be paid. 60 families that may get evicted,” Bowker said. “To me that’s a huge deal. This generation was made to believe that social security and government housing was going to take care of them when they became elderly and now the government is failing them because social security is not enough to live on and they can’t afford a place to live. Without this you’re going to have homeless elderly in FM. What happens in Washington really does effect FM locally and personally. If I could beat something into people’s heads it would be that.”
Toops said she’s been dealing with these kinds of changes for a quarter century and it’s just a matter of staying focused and remembering why you do it.
“Remember what you’re doing, why you do it, and who you’re serving and taking care of,” she said. “Try to get rejuvenated once a in a while with your successes and you see people you’ve helped get out of the program. Maybe you see someone working at a store or a nurse is taking your blood pressure that used to be in the program and you say ‘Alright, she’s doing ok’.”