BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A federal housing official stopped in Fort Madison Tuesday afternoon to look at some rehabilitation projects that have added housing stock to the city.
Jason Mohr, Housing and Urban Development’s Great Plains Regional Director, toured the old Lee County Bank upper floor apartments, the Cattermole library, and the converted Fort Madison Middle School.
Mohr was accompanied by representatives from the Iowa Economic Development Authority representatives, Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission, and Fort Madison Partners. He was also joined by Steve Eggleston, HUD’s Field Office Director out of Des Moines.
Mohr had a round table discussion with the state and local officials about the struggles they are encountering with housing.
Sara Hecox, a housing grant administrator with Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission, talked about building opportunities SEIRPC is involved with, including programs that build homes from the ground up with Central Lee Community Schools and Southeastern Community College, as well as grants for home rehabilitation.
She said finding property owners willing to go through the process of obtaining grants for rehabilitation and construction has proven difficult in the past.
“I’ve had homeowners back out of grants before the contractor starts working. I just never hear from them again.”
Mohr asked why people were backing out and Hecox said there were multiple issues, including not wanting to let the state into their personal finances, to mental health issues, and scheduling.
Leslie Leeker, with the IEDA said the grant process has been streamlined to make things simpler for people to take advantage of grant programs.
While touring the downtown area, Mohr said he was impressed with what has been accomplished with the upper floor rehabs, projects that were done with HUD Community Development Block Grants and other historical tax credits.
“It’s great. I love architecture and old buildings and just think of all the beautiful buildings this country has torn down in the past 100 years that maybe could have been saved,” he said.
“A lot of these communities do have older homes, but the wood and craftsmanship they used back then is far superior to the products we use now.”
Mohr has a four-state region (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska) and said a common theme he sees where development struggles is outdated local ordinances.
“It kinda depends on the city and what the building regulations are and what their ordinances are,” Mohr said.
“Sometimes that can be the biggest hurdle and we’ve even seen where that adds 25 to 30% of the cost of multi-family housing or single-family housing and builders say they’re just not gonna do it.
“This administration and Secretary (Ben) Carson have focused not only on our own regulations and trying to reduce some of the red tape and barriers, but also have communities look at their own ordinances that were done 50 years ago.”
During the pandemic, HUD has awarded Iowa more than $45.1 million in CARES Act funding for entitlement programs including CDBG grants among others, to assist states and their communities through the
Eggleston mirrored Mohr’s concern for local governments to work closely with developers to help rebuild and identify needed housing stock.
But he said Fort Madison, and other towns along the Mississippi in Iowa, seemed to have a sophistication about how to get these projects done without making a lot of money.
“They have to put up with mine and the state’s regulations but they get it done,” he said.
“Part of that has to do with the leadership of the community. If they can’t support it, it’s not going to happen.”
He said Fort Madison’s downtown offers a lot for developers to market upper floor housing and the city seems to be having some success with that.
“There’s a nice mix here of entertainment. People who live here can walk two blocks and have a beer or a hot dog and come home and be safe without driving. That isn’t always the case.”
Eggleston also referred to some Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed (ALICE) 2016 data that showed the median household income in Lee County was $44,568, compared to a state average of $56,247. He also provided a snapshot of housing and transportation costs for Fort Madison as part of an affordability index, that showed those costs account for just over 50% of income, which he said is high.
The range in the snapshot was between 43 and 71% but he said HUD likes to see those numbers in the 30% range.