Update: The Housing Fellowship agrees to vacant lot price for Student Built House

The former house at 724 Ronalds Street in Iowa City that has since been demolished. The Housing Fellowship is attempting to purchase to the land.
The former house at 724 Ronalds St. in Iowa City that has since been demolished. The Housing Fellowship is attempting to purchase the land. CREDIT GOOGLE STREET VIEW OCTOBER 2021

The city of Iowa City has reached an agreement to sell the vacant lot at 724 Ronalds St. to The Housing Fellowship for $75,400, the assessed value of the land.

Iowa City Council approved a resolution Aug. 2 to set a public hearing for next council meeting on Aug. 16 to finalize the transaction, contingent on council approval and a grant from the City’s Affordable Housing Fund-Opportunity Fund.

In 2016, Iowa City bought the property — which included a single-family home — for $86,800.  It was demolished earlier this year after building inspection services determined the home to be dangerous.

Once approved, The Housing Fellowship will hold a Good Neighbor Meeting to discuss their future plans with the land. They will need to submit all plans to the Historic Preservation Commission since the lot resides in the Brown Street Historic District.

Updated Aug. 3
Iowa City Council is drawing up an agreement to sell a vacant lot in the Brown Historic District to The Housing Fellowship to build affordable housing.

The collaborative effort, discussed at an Iowa City Council work session July 12, will be used to construct a Student Built House. The Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) stopped the Student Built House program — where local students receive on-the-job trades training to build affordable housing in the community — in 2010, but are bringing it back after hiring a full-time instructor.

The proposal calls for selling land at 724 Ronalds St. to The Housing Fellowship to own, develop and manage homes built as permanent affordable rental housing for families.  The Home Builders Association Vocational Training Council (VTC) would manage construction needs, while the ICCSD instructor is in charge of the students.

City Council eventually agreed the plan is in the best interest of the city – therefore forgoing the Request For Proposal process.

Staff noted the project address the affordable housing shortage, helps the city implement climate action goals and introduces students to career opportunity. They emphasized the importance of moving quickly and warned The Housing Fellowship and ICCSD’s timetable would require them to look elsewhere if assurances weren’t given during the meeting.

A design phase will not begin until the transaction is complete but The Housing Fellowship Executive Director Simon Andrew says the plan is to build one 3-5 bedroom home by the 2023-24 school year. There is enough space to potentially split the lot into two to build a smaller home the following year, he explained at a Historic Preservation Commission (HRC) meeting July 14.

The design must reflect the design of the neighborhood and be no taller than two stories. A new house will also meet a net-zero design.

The vacant lot at 724 Ronalds Street, the future site of a Student Built House.
The vacant lot at 724 Ronalds Str., the future site of a Student Built House. CREDIT NOAH TONG

Strong opinions on city council

Iowa City acquired the lot in December 2016 for $86,800 with the intention of demolishing the home due to its unsafe nature. While the intention was to fill the space with a “missing middle” housing project, the site has sat undeveloped.

Missing middle housing describes a “range of multi-unit or clustered housing types,” typically in walkable neighborhoods offering a variety of price points, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Council member John Thomas, while agreeing the The Housing Fellowship proposal checks a lot of boxes expressed his disappointment at plan’s lack of intentionality about missing middle housing.

“That was really the whole idea behind purchasing this property was to serve as a demonstration project as to how missing middle might be employed in the core neighborhoods,” he said. “That was certainly an expectation of mine.”

Other councilors felt strongly the opportunity should not be overlooked.

“I realize it is not the exact configuration of the missing middle, however, this is actually giving affordable housing in perpetuity in the core neighborhood,” said council member Megan Alter.

Council member Janice Weiner highlighted her personal experience with the Student Built House program, arguing the city should capitalize on the opportunity.

“As the parent of someone who participated in the first Student Built project done in Iowa City in several years through Kirkwood Community College that it is an amazing opportunity,” she explained. “They produced a house over the summer in which five persons with disabilities now live.”

“I honestly can’t imagine an RFP that would excite me as much as this,” said council member Shawn Harmsen.

Concerns over process

A memo received from HRC Chair Kevin Boyd before the meeting initially seemed like it could upend the project altogether. In the memo, Mr. Boyd described his frustration at city council making a decision about the land without HPC, neighborhood groups or the public getting to express their opinions and generate feedback.

The lot at 724 Ronalds St. was set to be on the HPC agenda just two days later – after a decision by city council would likely already be made.

“Our intention was to do an RFP,” said City Manager Geoff Fruin. “This opportunity came to us…and it checks a lot of strategic goals.”

Council agreed the process could be improved in the future, but ultimately decided process should not dictate their decision.

“This is an incredibly rare opportunity that literally fell out of the sky in a very quick time,” said Ms. Alter. “It’s going in reverse of usual process…but I think we’d be foolish to pass this up.”

Staff and council members also said Good Neighbor meetings can still be held, and the public can still be kept in the loop of all future development plans.

“I literally campaigned on process,” said council member Lauren Bergus, before noting she did not want the council to lose sight of the benefits of the program. “We’d be forgoing permanent affordable housing on an infill site in the core neighborhoods, which is like a unicorn.”

Despite how the process unfolded, Mr. Boyd believes the project will be a success.

“As much as I was disappointed about how the city approached the project, I’m very excited about what the end results are going to be,” he said during the HPC meeting.