Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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June 23, 2017

Sullivan’s Salvos     6/27/17

In this edition:

*Poor Farm Housing
*Did You Know?

*Poor Farm Housing
         As you may know, Johnson County is putting together a plan for the future of the County Poor Farm. While there are several areas of agreement, there are also several things upon which we disagree. The most critical of these issues is the need for housing as a component.

         On Friday, June 23, the Board voted 3-2 to move forward with a Poor Farm planning process that includes some housing as a part of the mix. Supervisors Friese, Carberry, and Sullivan voted yes; Supervisors Green Douglass and Rettig voted no.

         You are going to hear a bunch of hyperbole around this. One Supervisor has falsely said that we “want to develop the whole Poor Farm,” and “sell the whole Poor Farm,” and “pave the whole Poor Farm,” among all sorts of other indiscretions. Please allow me to be very clear about what we want to do.

         I happen to believe housing at the Poor Farm is absolutely critical. In fact, I would argue that a housing component is SO critical that no plan is worthwhile without it. Here are but a few of the reasons for my thinking:

Affordable housing is the number one need in Johnson County, period. We have a rare opportunity here. We have a valuable resource – land in Iowa City – that matches the single biggest need in our community. We should not squander this opportunity.

         Yes, we could build affordable housing elsewhere in the county. But while we have a mechanism to buy land (the Conservation Bond) and conserve it as prairie, we have no comparable mechanism for buying land for housing. We already own this land. This is our one shot.

         Think about that for a moment. Imagine we want both 10 acres of prairie and 10 acres of affordable housing. Which is easier to create in the county? Almost any cornfield could be converted to prairie, as could most pastures, etc. But our own zoning laws (which I support) would prohibit turning that same 10 acres into affordable housing.

         The cost isn’t even close. 10 acres of farmland in an Ag area could be purchased for between $5,000 and $15,000 per acre. That is the cost to buy land and set it aside as prairie. There are literally hundreds of parcels where this could occur. To buy 10 acres zoned appropriately for affordable housing, on the other hand, might run five, ten, or twenty times as much. Don’t taxpayers expect us to use our resources – both land and tax dollars – more wisely than that?

         What’s more, affordable housing in the unincorporated areas is a recipe for disaster. Just look at the history of rural mobile home parks. For affordable housing to be successful, it requires city services, such as sewer, water, schools, and transit. Any attempt at affordable housing in the rural areas would lack those amenities; being in Iowa City proper, any affordable housing at the Poor Farm would have all of them.

         The attempt to incorporate housing into the Poor Farm has been criticized as, “urban sprawl.” This is a stretch, since it is already in city limits, contiguous to literally hundreds of existing homes.

Plus, the Board advocates setting aside dozens of acres as prairie. So it is not as though prairie would be absent here. It simply wouldn’t be the sole use.

         As a matter of fact, the proposed plan also sets aside dozens of acres for farmland, and dozens of acres of open public space. Housing would occupy only a tiny fraction of the available land; perhaps 10-20 acres out of 150 or more.
         I am just scratching the surface here. There are many more reasons to include housing as a part of the Poor Farm Plan.

         Another big reason is that the Board of Supervisors has expressed a commitment to Local Foods. I have taken the time to speak to the folks who grow food locally. They have told me what is needed. Small farmers want and need housing. Just ask them. I am not making this up. I am not substituting my judgment for the judgment of the people who do this every day. I have spent the past decade talking to small producers and people who want to enter farming. While it is not easy, they can find a couple of acres of land to lease. The difficulty is that they cannot find places where they can both live affordably and farm. Living in Iowa City and farming a couple acres near Lone Tree or Swisher is simply not effective. I am not making this up – one simply needs to talk to the local foods community. They will tell you they want this. You just have to listen.

         In the plan we approved, several beginning farmers could buy or lease an affordable home at the Poor Farm, then lease adjacent farmland from the County. If they quit farming, the lease would be broken, and the land could be rented to someone else. Same thing if they moved out of the home. It would become a farm incubator. Proximity might allow the sharing of some sheds, tractors, tools, etc., not to mention the benefits of community and the sharing of ideas.

         And we have witnessed it being done successfully. Most Supervisors traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to visit Troy Gardens. Troy Gardens has real world experience, and will reinforce my arguments.

         Again, we could allow the Poor Farm to become prairie, then try to implement this idea somewhere else out in the County. But why in the world would we choose to take a route that is so much more costly and so much less effective? (Remember – contrary to the way one Supervisor presents it, the vast majority of the Poor Farm is NOT currently open green space. It is 120 acres of GMO corn!)

         Then there is the idea that people need to be able to visit a working farm. I agree, and that is why I have been so excited to support Grow Johnson County and other farming efforts at the Poor Farm. I am positive access to farms and farmers will be a big part of this plan.

         Does that mean people need cornfields in which to walk? Well, Iowa has over 32 million acres of land dedicated to the production of commodity crops- 90% of the total land mass of the state. Johnson County is not much different. We have 297,209 acres of ag land. Of that, 246,987 – 83% - is row cropped. So if you want to see a cornfield in Johnson County, you can. We do not lack those. What we DO lack is affordable housing and available land for local food production.

         Let’s move on and talk about history. I have often said that we tend to focus on the “farm” part of the Poor Farm and ignore the “poor” part. Go back in time to the era in which the Poor Farm was created. A settler could simply ride up to a piece of ground, set up camp, and claim the land as his own. File a couple documents, and the land was his. That is how pretty much all our farms started. It was not particularly noteworthy to start a farm. Thousands of people did it.

So what made the Poor Farm different? It is the “poor” piece. Counties date back several hundred years, coming to the US from Great Britain. From the very beginning, counties were charged with caring for those who could not care for themselves. The way that settlers in the 1800s chose to provide this care was through a system of Poor Farms. They recognized, even back then, that counties had an obligation to help house those in need.

It wasn’t the “farm” piece that was special. Again, you could set up a farm almost anywhere. It was the “poor” piece that was special. Counties had an obligation to help house those in need.

You know what? That obligation has not gone away. Counties still have a duty to assist the poorest among us. Turning the Poor Farm solely into a park, while nice, would be a betrayal of the County’s historic mission to provide for those in need. Housing for the poor is why this land was purchased in the early 1800s. We owe it to our forefathers to continue to house low-income people there today.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. We have a historic opportunity, and we need to think big. I feel the plan that includes housing, small farms, and parkland is the best way to accomplish this.

*DID YOU KNOW?  From the Johnson County Historical Society: In 1855, the Johnson County supervisors decided to procure 160 acres on the edge of Iowa City for a “poor farm” to provide systematic care with economy.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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