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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

May 27, 2019

Des Moines Register. May 23, 2019

Big problem with tiny houses for homeless: No place to put them

Tiny homes are all the rage. As small as garden sheds, they are part of a movement focused on downsizing and living with less.

HGTV programs like “Tiny House, Big Living” feature buyers who custom-build homes with lofted beds, composting toilets and rooftop decks. These are frequently people with financial means who have chosen to forgo traditional housing.

What the television shows do not explore: zoning laws or how owners secure access to fresh water, electricity and sewer lines. Unless someone purchases or rents suitable property, finding a place to park even the cutest wooden house on wheels is no easy task.

And good luck finding a place for several little dwellings intended to shelter homeless people.

Some homeless advocates view the relatively easy-to-construct houses as a good option in providing immediate and temporary shelter. Des Moines-based Joppa is among them. The nonprofit has so far built seven tiny homes with help from volunteers and donations.

Each measures about 95 square feet and has a bed, storage space, table and chairs. The organization hopes to purchase land for a village with a community center and shared bathroom, laundry and shower facilities. Residents would be able to stay in the homes for free and receive help toward earning a stable income.

Joppa has the best of intentions and good goals. Yet no one is living in any of its tiny homes. They are currently scattered in school and church parking lots. There is no place to legally place them as housing. That doesn’t discourage the nonprofit’s CEO, Dave Schwartz, who remains committed to the idea.

“We have to find an appropriate-sized lot in an area that makes sense,” he recently told a Register editorial writer. It should be on a bus line and near a grocery store, and residents will need access to services.

The question now: Is there a place in Polk County for such a village?

Such tiny communities are understandably controversial. Neighbors may not welcome several men living nearby in “sheds with beds.” What will such a village look like in five or 10 years when the structures have aged?

Proposed sites for Joppa’s village have so far not panned out. One of those sites in the River Bend neighborhood drew criticism from residents. And opposition isn’t only about location.

Tiny houses are “a distraction” from providing permanent housing for the poorest among us, said Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. “If the energy and resources dedicated to tiny houses were directed toward permanent, affordable rental housing, we would be closer to our goal of ending homelessness and housing poverty.”

Approving a location for a tiny village is not something local governments should do lightly. Before making any decisions, officials should look at what has worked and not worked other places.

On a plot of land south of Kansas City, more than a dozen homes painted in rich colors like deep blue and mustard yellow provide a place for military veterans. On seven acres in Newfield, New York, there are 18 homes with bathrooms and kitchenettes at Second Wind Cottages. The goal of the sponsoring organization is “to walk with men toward restored lives.”

The city of Seattle, which has embraced tiny houses for the homeless, shut down one village earlier this year. The site raised objections from the beginning because it allowed residents to use alcohol and drugs. That attracted the hardest-to-serve people who refused other offers of shelter. Many residents had significant challenges, including chronic mental health issues and substance abuse problems. Calls for police service in the area spiked 62 percent in a year, according to one analysis.

After relocating dozens of people and wheeling away the tiny houses, the Seattle lot will sit empty until construction begins in 2021 on a mixed-use building with more than 100 affordable housing units.

Among the lessons learned: Meeting with caseworkers must be a requirement, not an option, for residents. Communities need a contingency plan if a site does not work. And perhaps skip the tiny houses and go straight for affordable housing units in permanent structures with plumbing and electricity.

Though not as exciting as charming little houses with red doors and window boxes, they may make more sense in the long run.


Dubuque Telegraph Herald. May 26, 2019

Memorial Day changes, but still about honor

One hundred years ago, Memorial Day in the tri-state area was much different than it will be this weekend. And yet there remain some important and somber similarities.

Originally called Decoration Day, when the graves of war casualties were decorated, Memorial Day was the outgrowth of the scattered observances conducted on various spring days in various communities after the Civil War. In 1869 — 150 years ago — many major cities held their observances on May 29, a Saturday.

In time, the date of the observance was set at May 30. Always May 30. Then, the day was about honoring the dead, not creating a three-day weekend for our leisure time convenience and pleasure. (Memorial Day officially floated to the fourth Monday of May starting in 1971.)

On Memorial Day a century ago, the “war to end all wars,” now known as World War I, had concluded just six months earlier. Many Americans were still alive to share their remembrances of the service during the Civil War.

Four of those Civil War veterans were featured in the huge parade staged in East Dubuque, Ill., the morning of Memorial Day 1919. H.A. Harney, George Hutton, M.J. Platt and Frank Coyle rode together in a car and no doubt acknowledged applause and cheers from the many spectators.

The event was much like those conducted in communities across the tri-state area and across the country. But, according to the Telegraph Herald’s account, East Dubuque pulled out all the stops.

The parade also included World War veterans, Boy Scouts, Red Cross members, St. Mary’s School choir, East Dubuque Fire Department (including its band), fraternal organizations and hundreds of school children.

It’s noteworthy that the parade did not snake its way to the ballfield or picnic grounds. Participants marched to the local cemetery, where a somber ceremony of honor and remembrance took place.

In a front-page editorial on that Friday afternoon, the Telegraph Herald in part said this:

“The last four years Memorial Day has made us catch our breath in contrast between the past and the present. Today it finds us almost incredulous as we turn from that past to our certain future ...

“A handful of old men march today, and lay tokens of remembrance upon the graves of their comrades ...

“Slow has been the struggle, marked by blood and tears, of advance towards human freedom and brotherhood. But on it moves. Each terrible contest brings it that much nearer to the goal.”

Our journalistic predecessors apparently believed — or at least hoped — that the results of war would have some sort of cumulative effect, in which conflict and death represented a step toward ultimate peace. Thousands of battles and millions of deaths later, the fallibility of that view is in much clearer focus.

On Memorial Day 2019, like in 1919, there will be parades, ceremonies and cemetery visits. Thousands will participate. But it is no longer a day so deeply committed to honoring those who went before us.

This is no call to cancel the family picnic, the softball tournament or long weekend at the lake. The three-day holiday weekend is ingrained in contemporary American society; that is not going to change.

However, with these words we hope that each and every tri-state resident who does not participate in official Memorial Day proceedings will at least find a few quiet moments to reflect upon and respectfully give thanks for all those whose sacrifice makes this leisure time possible.


Fort Dodge Messenger . May 22, 2019

Fort Dodge financial practices earn high marks

When the Fort Dodge City Council turned to the bond market Monday to borrow about $11.2 million to pay for various projects and purchases, a sometimes bewildering amount of numbers was discussed.

As the various facts, figures and percentages were reviewed, it would have been easy to overlook a very important combination of two letters and a number.

That combination was Aa3. It means good things for the local government.

When investment houses are trying to decide if they want to buy municipal bonds, they seek information on the financial practices of the community. To get that information, they often turn to Moody’s Investors Service, which issues a kind of report card on the finances of communities.

Moody’s Investors Service gave Fort Dodge a grade of Aa3. That’s a very high mark. In fact, last year Jon Burmeister, managing director of Public Financial Management in Des Moines, told the City Council that it would be hard for a community the size of Fort Dodge to get a better rating.

Fort Dodge earned the Aa3 grade in 2010, and has maintained it ever since, even as other cities across the nation saw their ratings downgraded.

In a May 9 statement on the city’s rating, Moody’s Investors Service wrote that it “reflects the city’s stable tax base and status as a regional economic center in north central Iowa and healthy operating reserves.”

The Aa3 rating may not seem to mean much to the Fort Dodge citizens. But it means that their city government is able to borrow money at favorable interest rates to do necesessary projects while keeping the property tax rate stable.

The fact that Fort Dodge earned such a fine rating is a tribute to the steady financial management practices of City Manager David Fierke and Jeff Nemmers, the city clerk and finance director. It’s also a tribute to the elected officials who have to make tough decisions on city finances.

Implementing sound financial policies isn’t glamorous work, But it’s necessary, and we’re pleased that Fort Dodge leaders have done it in a way that earns high marks from a national organization.


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