A narrow strip of ground gave rise to widely differing visions of Perry’s future at last week’s city council meeting.
The Perry City Council was considering whether to give away an alleyway-wide length of city property to Doug and Mary Bruce, owners of the adjoining lot at Willis Avenue and West Third Street. The Bruces want to sell their lot, and it will appeal more readily to potential developers with the city’s thin strip thrown in, according to backers of the plan.
Opponents of the action urged the council to reject the giveaway of public property, saying it would open the door to construction of a 38-unit low-income apartment complex in a town already overstocked with low-income housing.
“Anytime the city gets into the business of giving away public property in this way, then they’re incentivizing this sort of development.”
An apartment project was proposed several months ago by Kenosha, Wis.-based Bear Development, which hopes to land a portion of the low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) awarded annually by the Iowa Finance Authority. Bear Development would then sell the tax credits in order to pay for construction of the low-income apartments in Perry.
By vacating the public property, the city council would help smooth the way for Bear Development’s purchase of the Bruces’ lot.
“Anytime the city gets into the business of giving away public property in this way, then they’re incentivizing this sort of development,” said Kevin Wicks, a 2003 graduate of Perry High School who lives in Perry and owns and operates a small business.
Wicks was joined by several other Perry residents who oppose the further expansion of the city’s stock of low-income housing.
“Until the city comes up with a comprehensive plan that also includes the development of single-family housing, we shouldn’t be encouraging the building of more workforce housing,” Wicks said.
Workforce housing is a more polite and less class-coded way of saying low-income housing.
“We’ve run into people who want to paint us as anti-poverty,” Wicks said, “but we’re not. We’re pro-Perry. We think Perry’s growth should be balanced, but right now Perry’s out of balance.”
T.J. Maylum, a special-needs teacher at Perry High School, shared Wicks’ concern for the direction of Perry’s development.
“There’s a shortage of low-income housing nationwide,” Maylum told the council, “but Perry actually has an oversupply of it already. We’re concerned that people who are thinking of moving here are finding shortages in other kinds of housing in Perry.”
Martha Stetzel of Perry noted that many professionals who work in Perry are forced to live elsewhere because of the lack of mid- and upper-scale housing in Perry. She encouraged the city council to “remember all of the needs” of the townspeople.
“We want all types of people to live in Perry,” Stetzel said, “and people on the low end should treat workforce housing as a stepping stone to better housing, not as a permanent structure.”
Adam Van Lin, sales associate with Nevitt Realty, the agents for the Bruces’ property, reminded listeners at the council meeting that the question before the council was not whether to build an apartment house but whether to vacate a small parcel of land.
“The owner already owns 90-95 percent of the parcel,” Van Lin said, “so the city’s vacation of its portion is not necessarily a prelude to its sale to Bear Development. Correlation does not prove causation.”
Mary Bruce said she and her husband bought the downtown lot 20 years ago and now need the alleyway in order to sell it. “In order either to sell it now or to another party, we need this extra land,” Bruce said.
Perry Mayor Jay Pattee said he saw the matter as “a property-rights issue” and advised the council to accept the recommendation of the Perry Planning and Zoning Commission, which approved the vacation earlier in the week.
“Would you want a group to come in here and say to you that you can’t sell your property?” Pattee said. “That would set a dangerous precedent.”
At the same time, Pattee said he welcomed the “bigger discussion” about housing in Perry and how best to foster development. The city’s “family slums,” Pattee said, are “not a pretty picture.”
The mayor said two factors have a lot of influence on people trying to decide whether to move to Perry: the quality of the city’s housing and the quality of the city’s public schools. Whether rightly or wrongly, Pattee said, both are often perceived to be defective.
Council member Dr. Randy McCaulley, former superintendent of the Perry Community School District, agreed the city has an interest in seeing people move from “slum-type facilities” to “more workforce-affordable, more respectable” housing, he said.
“We need more incentives for builders to build and for families to move here,” McCaulley said. “We need a comprehensive and effective marketing plan” to sell the town, he said.
One step in the direction of improved housing will come from the regular inspection of the city’s many rental properties. The city council’s housing committee is currently forging just such an inspection system and is expected to report soon.
Council member John Andorf said the housing committee is wrapping up its work and will have useful recommendations for “affordable housing, decent housing, housing for low-, middle- and upper-income people.”
Eddie Diaz, Perry High School history instructor and a former Perry City Council member, said he is bullish on Perry and proud to call it home. He said the city needs a comprehensive plan to attract both working-class and middle-class, single-family housing.
“Vacating this property is putting the cart before the horse,” Diaz said. It will have a negative impact on the soon-to-be published comprehensive plan, he said.
“How much other public land are we willing to sign away to out-of-state companies?” Diaz said.
Council members Barb Wolling and Phil Stone also made statements in support of the resolution, which eventually passed unanimously. Council member Chuck Schott was absent.