By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
CLINTON — A $5.5 million permanent supportive housing project in downtown Clinton — at risk of defeat because of not-in-my-backyard opposition — is moving forward with City Council approval on a 4-3 vote. The close vote followed a three-hour public hearing Nov. 14 in which supporters and opponents expressed their passionate views.
What attorney John Frey described as the stigma of homelessness pervaded the hearing. After narrowly approving the sale of city-owned property to the YWCA for its permanent supportive housing project, city council members also voted by a larger margin (5-2) to approve a $500,000 matching grant previously promised for the project.
The Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton are among the most ardent supporters of the YWCA’s project that will provide stability for individuals struggling with chronic homelessness. A new report shows that 1,241 households experienced homelessness between 2019 and 2021 in Clinton County, which has the highest level of homelessness (just under 3% in 2021) compared to its total population among the neighboring counties of Cedar, Jackson, Dubuque and Scott counties.
Members of the Clinton Franciscans were among nearly 30 people who expressed their opinions in the standing-room only meeting. Many people had to view the meeting online after the crowd reached seating capacity limits.
At stake was a $4.4 million grant from the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), the largest such award in Iowa, to go toward building 24 units of supportive housing apartment units and office space. The YWCA required City Council approval to purchase city-owned property in DeWitt Park by Nov. 30. The Iowa Finance Authority, which administers the grant, had extended the deadline after the City Council rejected the YWCA’s first proposed site for the project because of community opposition.
Project will address challenges
DeWitt Park already is home to 71 households in Park Tower, a senior low-income housing apartment building subsidized by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Division. Cheryl Wilson of the Clinton Housing Authority, who represented Park Tower residents at the meeting, said they oppose the supportive housing project because it will take away their green space. The project’s developer said the design has been modified to retain as much green space as possible.
Sister Jan Cebula, president of the Clinton Franciscans, spoke on behalf of the project and the need for supportive, affordable housing. The Sisters of St. Francis “began gathering a group of agencies and individuals concerned about addressing the needs of Clinton residents who are unhoused about nine years ago. The YWCA has participated in this coalition since its beginning. It has bee
n a long road to this day,” she said. Seated behind her as she spoke were supporters and opponents, the latter wearing black “Vote No” stickers. Among the supporters was YWCA Executive Director Shannon Sander-Welzien, who also spoke at the hearing.
Sister Cebula cited the Clinton, Iowa Housing Needs Analysis & Housing Strategies Report, 2023, which identified three main housing challenges in Clinton: shortage, affordability and quality. “The YWCA supportive housing project would help address all three of these challenges,” she said.
“The need for this project has been shown. Both the YWCA and the Information, Referral and Assistance Services have provided information about the escalating number of requests for assistance with housing. The school district has provided you with the number of students who are homeless.” Additionally, the housing needs analysis “states that Clinton needs 635 additional units to provide affordable housing to renter households making less than $20,000 annually. There is a need.”
Not in my backyard
“Let’s face it,” Sister Cebula said, “no matter where the project is proposed to be located, someone will object. The future occupants of this supportive housing project are residents of Clinton. Perhaps they currently reside in your ward and are just a paycheck and an emergency away from becoming unhoused. It is time to vote for the welfare of these residents and of the entire city of Clinton.”
Sharyl Wanzek, a social worker with the Clinton Community School District, spoke about her work with students and families who are homeless. “If we have a supportive housing project, then (other) money can be allocated toward my families because today I was on the phone with a mom who is losing her housing and she doesn’t know what she is going to do.”
“… I also have heard numerous people tell me here tonight that chronically homeless people are all substance users and they all have mental health conditions.” That is not true, Wanzek said. “Some are just chronically homeless because that is the vicious cycle they have been put into with generational poverty. They come from families who were one paycheck away from being homeless and their families ended up homeless. I have also worked with individuals who have been sleeping on porches as seniors in high school. Their families had kicked them out.”
She concluded, “Nobody wants this in their backyard; that is what everyone has made clear… There is going to be homeless no matter what we do, but at least with this supportive housing project, we can reduce (it) and help people who are in need.”
Bettendorf attorney Mike Meloy, who said he represented taxpayers opposed to the sale of DeWitt Park to the YWCA, cited objections based largely on legal and financial reasons. He said that DeWitt Park, platted in 1855, was to remain in use as a city park. He argued that the city did not follow proper procedures to sell the property and that the sale would set a precedent and create a significant burden on the city. “We’re not opposed to low-income housing. Clinton needs low-income housing,” but there are other locations to build the project, he said.
Attorney Braydon Roberts, who is representing the YWCA with Frey, pointed out that the siting and construction of Park Tower in DeWitt Park set the precedent some 40 years earlier. That project also endured strong opposition. Roberts said. “Park land was sold for low-income housing in 1979 and it has existed ever since then,” Frey said.
“The stigma for people experiencing homelessness gets in the way,” Frey said in his comments at the podium. “They’re (considered) addicts; they’re mentally ill, they’re lazy, all of that equals trouble,” he continued. “When stigma applies to people, it gets in the way of human relationships. We must be willing to get past the stigma if we’re here to help these people.”
The next step is a Phase 2 environmental study that will include a historical and archeological review of the site. “We will then work with the architect to finalize design of the building. After the design is final, we will send the proposal out for competitive bids,” Roberts said.