Engage Ideas with Mutual Respect

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “Engage ideas with respect.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (October 15): 11A.

Friends and neighbors, we are troubled by the situation on the southeast side of town. Rather than simply express opinions, often anonymously, we should engage one another’s ideas as if we lived in a democracy of mutual respect.

To exemplify, I want to engage the ideas of one person, Maria House Conzemius, whose Sept. 11 column vigorously expresses a view held by a number of Iowa Citians (“Is isolation what the city wants?”)

If I understand correctly, Conzemius believes that “leftist social workers and other misguided enablers on the Iowa City Council” hold “rigid, naïve beliefs” and think “Iowa City’s mission is to provide subsidized housing for refugees from inner cities regardless of their behavior.” In her view, these misguided Councilors have been producing “a concentrated, increasingly isolated urban ghetto on the southeast side.”

What actions and policies would derive from Conzemius’ way of framing the current situation? She would have us:

(1) Limit the number of “needy” families in Iowa City,

(2) Require city officials to determine who should move into the city,

(3) Teach “people of color” how to “assimilate and reach their full potential,” and

(4) Stop building more Section 8 housing, especially on the southeast side.

I am not a lawyer, but my sense is that the first three are either unconstitutional or else morally unacceptable. Let’s focus on the fourth.

Recall that Section 8 housing is built, owned, and managed by private developers and that city government can control its location only through zoning. Recall too that “super majority” support on the Council is typically required when a rezoning is requested.

When I served on the City Council from 1993 through 1995, we vigorously debated three proposed housing developments. Each would have required a rezoning and “super-majority” support.

First, there was Greenview, a proposed mobile home park off Sycamore just south of the city limits. Nearby residents opposed it because they did not want more trailer courts in their neighborhood. I opposed it (along with Karen Kubby and Bruno Pigott), mainly because we felt that lower-income housing should not be excessively concentrated in any one part of town, and so the proposal was defeated. The Press-Citizen editorialist claimed we “cut and ran” in the face of strong neighborhood opposition instead of acting in the community’s best interest.

Second, there was Saratoga Springs, a 41-unit complex for low-to-moderate income households that would be located at N. Dodge and Old Dubuque Road. Nearby residents opposed it, primarily because they did not want any “high-density” low-income housing in their neighborhood. Kubby, Pigott, Larry Baker and I supported the proposal, but Ernie Lehman, Susan Horowitz, and Naomi Novick opposed it. The rezoning was denied.

And third, there was Mormon Trek Estates, a 232-unit housing complex with a mix of housing styles and costs just southwest of Rohret Road and Mormon Trek Boulevard. Nearby residents opposed it because they thought it would be too dense and bring gangs, crime, and violence to the area. The Council approved it 6-0.

With these conflicts in mind, a 4-3 majority of our Council instructed the city staff to explore using “inclusionary zoning” and “neighborhood fair share” to disperse affordable or subsidized units throughout the city. Councilors Lehman, Horowitz, and Novick, and Councilor-elect Dean Thornberry resisted the idea. Several years later the city created a Scattered Sites Housing Task Force. After extensive public consultation, it recommended adoption of inclusionary zoning.

These facts document that it is not the actions of naïve Leftists on the City Council that have concentrated lower-income housing in the southeast side. They also indicate that we will need to blend some lower-income housing into all new developments if we want to avoid increasing its concentration in any one part of town.

And they suggest that, instead of demeaning one another, we should focus on the real challenge facing us—learning how to live together safely and respectfully.

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