After years of delay, the Forest View relocation program begins to move forward

The Forest View Mobile Home Court, photographed on April, 29, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Cindy Onnen has lived in Forest View Mobile Home Court for half a century. She moved there with her husband and 2-year-old son in 1971, when the rent was $25.

“It went up to $35 the next month, and I was mad. Gosh, to say that now, people would say, ‘Really? You’re that old?’” Onnen said.

She had two more children, and the family of five lived together in a 10-by-45-foot trailer. “Well, we all learned to get along,” she said.

The Forest View area includes the mobile housing park, located south of Interstate 80 and west of Dubuque Street, along with 73 acres of surrounding land. The park has changed since its inception in 1948, swapping hands between four owners, and seeing new residents come and go.

“The people, they’re all different. There’s been students, there’s been professors. There’s been people with money, there’s been people low-income. There’s been families. There’s been different areas of the world, different nationalities over the years,” she said. “A lot of them have invited me to have meals with them, so I’ve learned different cultures, different religions. It’s been a real learning experience.”

Onnen has also been working for Forest View for almost as long. She stopped counting after 40 years. From general maintenance and groundskeeping, to finance and office work, there isn’t much she doesn’t do to keep the park running.

And when her neighbors need help, she’ll lend a hand. She watches after elderly residents, so they can stay home. If someone needs help with their yard, she’s there with a mower. During the pandemic, she delivered school lunches to the neighborhood kids.

But Onnen has also watched Forest View gradually deteriorate since she started working there. There have been breaks in the water lines, telephone lines, even the gas lines. There were around 100 households in Forest View in 2019, but today there are less than 60.

“I think the last six years have been the worst since they decided to basically close it down and do the new [development]. Because then the trailers started disappearing, windows broke,” she said. “People leaving was difficult. Because there were a lot of people that left and made a special goodbye to me.”

Forest View redevelopment plans began circulating in 2016. The following year, Iowa City Council amended the North District plan to include mixed commercial and single- and multi-family housing uses.

The plan was created by Forest View owner North Dubuque, LLC — a group composed of Des Moines-based developer Blackbird Investments, Jeff Maxwell and Eddie Cole — along with the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) and Forest View residents.

North Dubuque, LLC’s original development plan, called for 57 single-family homes, over 280 multi-residential units, senior housing, two hotels and commercial space. In 2019, council approved a conditional zoning agreement (CZA) for the Forest View area. The CZA required the developers to provide residents with relocation assistance and first consideration for the new housing units.

The CZA would’ve provided a lease-to-purchase pathway for income-eligible residents for the single- and multi-family housing units, a maximum relocation payment of $7,200 per household for those who move to a different location and a one-year advance notice of the move-out date.

But since 2019, the $200 million development hasn’t made any progress. The company told Iowa City that the project will not continue as planned, and it’s looking for new buyers or project partners.

With promises of a redevelopment plan, Forest View residents have been reluctant to pay for home repairs, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, those repairs have become too expense for some households.

The city previously approved the use of emergency housing funds to help with repairs before winter. In 2020, it gave $5,000 to the Iowa City Federation of Labor, which purchased materials and provided volunteer efforts to fix 24 units. In 2021, the City gave $17,500 to Habitat for Humanity for repairs and weather-proofing. But an annual home repair program is a temporary fix that doesn’t address the park’s infrastructure decline.

Instead, the Forest View Tenants Association and CWJ proposed a voluntary $1.3 million relocation program, which will help between 82 to 87 households with moving expenses, down payments, security deposits, rent or other related costs.

The current relocation plan is a “proactive effort” to help residents before infrastructure failure, or before the owner’s decision to close Forest View on Jan. 1, 2023, according to city documents.

Forest View residents and supporters in the the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa attend a June 8, 2016 Iowa City Council meeting to call for a stop to what they believe are intimidation tactics by Forest View owners, Eddie and Cheri Cole, to get residents to evict. — Cassandra Santiago/Little Village

The city is not legally required to provide relocation assistance, but over the past months of work sessions, council members have expressed a “moral obligation” to help Forest View residents. The city council unanimously approved the relocation program during its formal meeting on April 19.

The city council has previously approved relocation assistance for other neighborhoods, including Rose Oaks in 2016 and Hawkeye Trailer Court in 2018. At $1.3 million, Forest View will be the largest allocation of funds. The Rose Oak program provided $49,000, and the Hawkeye Trailer Court program provided $17,557.

The relocation plan will provide $15,750 to all households who were residents since June 4, 2019, when the CZA was signed, regardless the number of people living in the household. The city plans to send the first round of checks at $7,875 by mid- to late May, and residents will receive the second round once they move. Households that have already moved will receive the full amount in one payment. To be eligible for assistance, residents have to move out before Dec. 9, 2022.

The city will spend $68,000 to administer the program. CWJ will help households find housing. The city and CWJ will hold eligibility clinics in early May to help households complete necessary forms. The clinics will have weekend and evening hours, and CWJ will help with translation and interpretation.

Funding for the relocation program comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which allows funds to be allocated to address negative economic impacts. The city will use local funds, which are taxable, for households who moved before March 2020 or who earn more than $40,626 annually. At least 12 households moved out prior or were above the income threshold, said City Manager Geoff Fruin.

Onnen plans to move out of Forest View, but it’s difficult to leave her home and community behind. Her kids have mixed feelings too, but they have urged her to move and work less, especially after her husband’s death two years ago, she said.

“There’s a part of me doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to lose what I feel comfortable with. But there’s a part of me that knows how bad the court is, the infrastructure and stuff,” she said. “It needs to close down. There’s just a whole lot of emotions, and I’m trying to get my way through all of them, if you can imagine.”

She’s thinking of buying a house with her son, who also lives in Forest View. But everything is “up in the air,” which bothers her. She wants to know where she’s going, and what volunteer or work opportunities she’ll find there.

“I don’t know where I’m gonna go. I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” Onnen said. “I had no plans when I moved to Forest View, and it’s just been a real experience. And one I really don’t want to lose, but I know I have to lose.”

Mayor Bruce Teague celebrated the relocation program during the council’s formal meeting on April 19, but acknowledged that the transition will be difficult for residents because of high rents in Iowa City.

“I’m going to be very proud to approve this today,” Teague said. “I’m also reminded that this road won’t be easy for a lot because of the rent in our community. Now I think that’s something for us to continue to work on.”

Many council members thanked the Forest View residents for their resolve over the years. Council member Pauline Taylor said she was amazed by their strength and courage, calling the residents “great role models” for their children, family members and the Iowa City community. Shawn Harmsen said that their community organizing sends a message beyond Forest View, which Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter echoed.

“Your strength, in addition to your inspiration and your hope, just the sheer strength in the face of enormous challenge is truly inspiring,” Alter said. “It’s a model for how we all should work as a community.”

While the Forest View residents have a path forward, the future of the 73-acre area is murky. The land has not been sold yet, and redevelopment has stalled. When a new plan is created, the city will likely need to rezone the area and create a new CZA. It may take years before shovels hit the ground.

But for Onnen, she’ll find something to do and someone to help.

“Wherever I go, I know there will be people who need something, so I can keep busy,” she said. “I’m going to do something, and my kids know that I’ll be out, and I’ll be active because that’s who their mother’s been for all their lives. So, what’s next?”

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