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Takeaways from our Envision Iowa Think Tank on Infrastructure


The full video of the event is available on businessrecord.com.

As Iowa continues to struggle with a workforce shortage, issues related to child care and housing are among the top issues affecting the labor and demographic challenges. Yesterday Business Publications Corp., our parent company, hosted our third and final virtual Think Tank event as part of our Envision Iowa initiative to talk about these and other infrastructure-related topics. Here’s some of what we took away from the discussion.

Speakers included:

  • Keynote: Tiffany O’Donnell – CEO, Women Lead Change
  • Amal Barre – vice president, planning and strategy, Oakridge Neighborhood Services
  • Mark Holloway – vice president, talent and inclusion, Quad Cities Chamber
  • Angela Lensch – early childhood educator and member of Early Childhood Iowa board

What does the term ‘affordable housing’ mean?
Iowa is expected to gain 47,000 additional households by 2030 and many of the new households will likely want to live in housing that is affordable, Tiffany O’Donnell said. Currently, about 38% of Iowa renters and 16% of its homeowners spend more than 30% of their income on housing. (Households that spend 30% or more of their gross income on housing costs are considered cost burdened.) With the median sale price of houses and monthly rental costs inching upward, even more households are expected to be cost-burdened when it comes to housing, said O’Donnell, who is mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city. “That’s our challenge as we look at affordable housing,” she said. It’s also challenging to describe what population is in need of affordably priced housing, O’Donnell said. The term often is associated with Section 8 housing, a federal program that assists very low-income families and people who are elderly or disabled with housing costs. The federal program is not what is being referred to when community leaders and others say Iowa needs more affordable housing, O’Donnell said. “We need affordable housing for young people that we continue to need in our state and need to recruit to our state. They are often people who have college debt. They may be making pretty decent money on paper” but they may not be able to afford to buy a house because of escalating costs, she said. “Affordable housing does affect a lot of us.” – Kathy Bolten

Investment in public transportation
While much of the conversation revolved around housing and child care, Mark Holloway also discussed the need for more investment in public transportation. “If you don’t have a car, it’s very hard for you to get to work,” he said. “So I think some investments in public transportation can really help those in the lower end of the spectrum to find better job opportunities.” Holloway said too often people without cars are left to rely on others to get them to work, and the lack of transportation has been an “impediment for people to find success.” – Michael Crumb

Housing, child care a community problem
Part of the discussion focused on the need to approach issues of housing and child care as a community problem. Holloway said the challenges should be viewed as a shared problem. “We have to look at it that we’re all in this together and we maybe need to partner — business needs to partner with government … to find some solutions to this. Obviously the easy answer is money, right? Child care facilities need more money to pay more, they need to be more affordable, but where’s the money coming from? Let’s sit down, government, business, community partners, providers, all together saying: ‘How can we come up with a solution that works for everyone?’” – Michael Crumb

Solutions to providing child care
In the past five years, Iowa has lost about one-third of its child care businesses, Amal Barre said. “If you look at where that loss has occurred, you’ll see that there is an overlap between where we find child care deserts across our community and where we see affordable housing needs.”  Being more creative where child care centers are placed could help address both issues, she said. For instance, place a child care center in an apartment complex or a neighborhood close to where families live, Barre said. “Doing that can also help us tackle some of the challenges we face in connecting families with the critical resources that they need access to.” –  Kathy Bolten

Child care needs of shift workers
Beyond the initial lack of available child care slots in the state is the severe shortage of options for Iowans that work second or third shifts. “Child care is not even an option for them,” Holloway said. “Often those are people who work in manufacturing, and those are the people who are least likely to be on calls like this. … Often their voices aren’t heard.” He mentioned that insurance is a barrier for some businesses who have tried to bring on-site child care to those employees. He said solving the problem is going to require creative solutions. – Emily Kestel

Who is responsible?
The idea of Envision Iowa is to share ideas and solutions to the challenges facing the state today. One conversation that I thought addressed that was the question about who is responsible to address issues of child care and housing. Barre said it’s everyone’s responsibility. “I believe that housing is community care and so is access to child care. If we don’t have individuals that have the access that they need to critical and basic care, then our community is not going to be at a place where it can realize its full potential,” she said. Barre suggested that if individuals within the community aren’t thriving then the community can’t thrive. “It’s realizing that a lot of these challenges we have are community issues. So ensuring that these are our problems and not their problems, and understanding how providing and investing in those services and infrastructure is going to get us to a better tomorrow for all of us.” – Michael Crumb

Affordable housing, child care affect everyone
If I had to boil down the entire panel discussion to one takeaway, it would have to be that the issues of child care and affordable housing are ones that affect everyone. “But I don’t have kids, I don’t need to worry about the lack of child care options in the state,” you may think. Barre and Holloway would argue that your logic needs to be reframed with the understanding that they’re community issues. And Michael mentioned this idea above, but I believe it bears repeating: “If we have individuals that don’t get the access they need to critical and basic care, our community is not going to be thriving,” Barre said. “And vice versa, when our community isn’t doing well, the individuals within our community aren’t doing well, either.” Barre also brought up the idea to localize and personalize shared experiences that we all have. For example, if a child care center had to close its doors in a community, what effect would that have? “Imagine if we had a way to be able to pinpoint that business location and tell the story of the loss of that business and what that meant for the neighborhood, the community that business was located in.”  Emily Kestel

Join our in-person event on Oct. 5! If you’re interested in the topics covered by the Think Tanks, we hope you’ll join us for our annual in-person Envision Iowa event at 4 p.m. on Oct. 5 at the Hilton Garden Inn West Des Moines. We will discuss what Iowa leaders think about the economic future of Iowa and you will be among the first to hear new research that will help guide your decision-making. Learn more and get registered.

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