Sustainable, affordable housing

How does one talk about Affordable Housing in the community many publications deem the most affordable market in the country?  Do our demographics mean we can cross it off the list as “problem solved?”  Despite the glowing reports, what do things look like on the ground for those who work in this area day to day?

One of the first things to consider is that today’s reality limits the ability of low and moderate income workers to become homeowners.  Many, and especially families, are faced with a lifetime of renting.  Regular savings for required down payments and spotless credit scores are just a not part of their world. Their reality is trying to finding safe, stable and affordable rental housing.

Conventional wisdom has been that low and moderate income families should limit the cost of housing and related services to 30% of their income.  Spending more than that requires cutting essential needs elsewhere, such as food, clothing, medical costs, transportation and education.

What does that mean for someone working full time (40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year) making:

Hourly Wage Income Rent
$7.25 (minimum wage) $15,080.00 $377.00
$15.00 $31,200.00 $780.00
$20.00 $41,600.00 $1040.00


Even in Central Iowa a single parent with two children is challenged to find safe, stable, affordable housing at the recommended cost.

Traditional solutions to this need have been to provide graduated rental assistance from government tax dollars.  Traditional is not sustainable.  The challenge for the future is to create and sustain affordable housing with shrinking resources.

This community needs to redefine its approach to the challenge of providing affordable housing.  One way to do that is to re-examine the definition of what is affordable and how to allow families to comfortably spend more than 30% of their income on housing.  The obvious way is to reduce the family’s costs in other areas.  Strategic thinking points directly toward transportation costs.

As we move forward with the Tomorrow Plan, how do we plan for families to reduce the percentage of their income spent on providing transportation?  What does that mean for our metropolitan mass transit master plans?  What does that mean for locating affordable, workforce housing close to regular, dependable transit hubs?  How does it impact land use planning so as to allow affordable housing options within walking distance of necessary amenities?  Where will the community find the political will necessary to make some of these hard decisions?  Using tax dollars to fund affordable housing is not sustainable.  New solutions are needed.

Eric BurmeisterEric Burmeister came to the Polk County Housing Trust Fund in 2010 after a thirty year career in real estate development and finance. Burmeister has a long history of involvement in the Des Moines community, and he is active in several Des Moines neighborhood associations.  He is currently serving on The Tomorrow Plan’s Steering Committee as a community representative for affordable housing issues.
This entry was posted in Exchange. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Sustainable, affordable housing

  1. Michael Snodgrass says:

    Good article, Eric. I agree totally. There are many ways to create affordable housing but I think we need to consider alternatives to both housing and neighborhood development that answer many of the questions you and The Tomorrow Plan are asking. I don’t think the answer is necessarily in the private developer or current banking system since, without government subsidy, there is very little motivation to invest. That leaves governmental run programs or subsidies which are tough in a tight economy and the nonprofit world to engage in this issue. Habitat has a good model but the need far outweighs their ability. I wonder if a nonprofit affordable housing developer should be encouraged to enter the market?

  2. Shari says:

    Yes, I agree too. Sustainability is not necessarily providing each person with an affordable single family residential home. You can make housing more affordable by having HIGH RESIDENTIAL communities close to all the necessities in life (Grocery, Medical, Daycare, Banking, Work …. etc) that all need to be part of housing developments to make them sustainable into the future. It’s about affordable walkable communities. Then you need to have transportation (transit), vanpool/carpool AND/OR bike paths for those that do not have vehicles or those that choose sustainability for their lives. It’s about making a community accessible to the retired senior that just lost their ability to drive or that low-income person that is living on minimum wage or that person that wants a sustainable life. Make communities livable without a car AND increase public transit options is how to get it done. DART needs more fixed routes that have multiple destinations other than just downtown DSM. Not everyone is going downtown anymore. The high commercial area corridors (where we work) should be served with high-frequency bus service. Transit service every 10-15 minutes should be the minimum along these high commercial corridors and then promotion of this corridor as a walkable community should be done by the TMA. Then the corridors surrounding this commercial corridor should then be surrounded by affordable HIGH RESIDENTIAL options for those choosing sustainable living. Those living in the suburban homes, 20+ minutes from these commercial corridors, have already chose a gas guzzling life and probably have a hard time supporting that lifestyle. That’s their choice but it’s not the ultimate. Des Moines should be better in making little walkable and sustainable communities/corridors for those that want or need to have this lifestyle. Lastly, fixed-route public transit cannot serve everyone. It should serve the majority, the high dense areas. For those needing public transit or demand response service, they need to change their lifestyle and search out areas to live that can accommodate their life without a vehicle.

    I live in Altoona. I live 5 minutes from two grocery stores, high quality daycare, coffee shop, hair salon, dentist and fitness centers. The only long distance locations I drive to on a irregular basis are the hospital, East-side Mercy Clinic, and my massage therapist 38th/Douglas. Everything else is readily available close-by. I travel to a mall perhaps 2-3 times a year, the same as I did growing up in a small town two hours from Des Moines. It was a special all-day occasion to shop at the mall and still is. I wish there were more restaurants but this just encourages me more to cook at home which is better for my budget anyway. When my husband and I do eat out, we do so in Altoona. supporting home town businesses. I work in Ames and CARPOOL everyday of the week leaving me to drive 2 times a week at the most! While my commute time to Ames is 10 more minutes than if I drove to downtown DSM, I certainly have it easier than sitting in bumper to bumper traffic like Ankeny residents heading downtown in the morning hours with just one person in their vehicle. The best part about commuting (carpooling/vanpooling) with others is the balance of your home/work life in not working constant overtime hours which many individuals do in today’s society. When it’s 5pm… I go home to my family. Now, that’s sustainable!

  3. hstege says:

    Additional information about finding affordable housing, getting a mortgage, and other related topics can be found at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *