Ann Freerks arrived in Iowa City because she was willing to challenge something she considered unfair. While a student at a small high school in rural northern Iowa, she learned about a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Iowa. But there was a problem: the scholarship was only available to men.
She wrote a letter to the scholarship’s sponsor, and persuaded him to change to its terms.
“So, I was the first female to be able to get that scholarship,” Freerks recalled. She attended UI, majoring in journalism and art, and became the first person in her family to graduate from college.
“From there, that’s how I ended up on S Governor Street,” Freerks said. She and her husband originally considered their house on S Governor a starter home, but that changed.
“We’ve been there 25 years,” she said. “I’ve been married 29 years to my husband. I have two kids, a son, Nicholas, who is a junior at Iowa studying engineering, and a daughter who is a freshman at City High.”
Freerks works as a creative coordinator in UI’s Office of Strategic Communication, but is probably best known in Iowa City for her long service on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Freerks’ involvement with city planning started with a fight to preserve her Longfellow neighborhood, about five years after moving into her home.
“I received a phone call from someone who is a realtor in town, who said, ‘Your area is going to change. You need to sell your house,’” Freerks said. That was how she discovered that developers had to construct multi-resident buildings intended as student housing on a scale that would have substantially altered the character of the neighborhood.
“That part of Longfellow is a very mixed area,” Freerks said. “Diverse income levels, there’s students, elderly people, just a little bit of everything. There’s a 12-plex in my backyard.”
She added, “I just couldn’t stand to abandon that and see what would happen to that forever.”
Freerks worked with her neighbors to push back against the development plans. There was a lot of money at stake in the deal — both for the developers and for residents willing to sell.
“Things got really ugly,” Freerks said. “Lots of things happen.”
But in the end the community came together, Freerks said, and they were able to downzone the neighborhood to limit housing density in Longfellow.
“That sense of community [resulting from the Longfellow fight] is just kind of awe-inspiring,” Freerks said. “My garage was spray-painted, and people came over and helped me repaint my garage. I didn’t even ask for that kind of thing.”
It was the beginning of Freerks’ long career of community service.
She served as president of both the Longfellow Elementary School PTA and the Longfellow Neighborhood Association. From there she joined the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission.
“I felt I needed to do my part,” Freerks said.
While she was on the commission, a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission resigned. She was appointed to finish that member’s term, then served three additional five-year terms.
“I feel I have all this knowledge now about not just planning and zoning, but about how the community works and how to get things done,” Freerks said. “How to get four people to agree on something, in order to move forward with an idea or something that needs to happen. Creating consensus, listening to people, respecting everybody as they come forward and try to make sure everybody is heard.”
“The way that transportation, parks, schools, affordable housing, economic development — all of these things are intertwined,” she continued. “I have an understanding of all of that. I thought that there might be a little bit of a need for that on city council.”
Freerks said there are obvious issues the Iowa City Council needs to address.
“Affordable housing is definitely one,” she said. “If we don’t try to [work on the issue] continuously, and somewhat aggressively and also try to bring in the greater community then we’re going to fall behind.”
Looking for a regional solution to the affordable housing problem — involving Coralville, North Liberty and other nearby communities — was an idea Freerks discussed at the League of Women Voter’s forum.
“But we have to not be afraid to do something ourselves,” she said.
Improving public transportation is also high on her list of priorities.
“I’ve heard a lot from people, more than I could have ever imagined, about Sunday bus service,” Freerks said.
She suggested the city create a pilot program for a new Sunday bus service.
“We can try a small thing,” Freerks said. “We try it, we collect data for a certain amount of time, we see if works. If it doesn’t, we’re not out a lot. If it does, we can expand on it.”
But ultimately, Freerks feels that citizens, not members of the city council, should set the agenda.
“In the end, it’s not about what my vision is, it’s about what the community has laid out and agreed upon and making sure those goals and those things are met,” Freerks said. “So, it’s all about how you use your tools, and the things that you do to make those things happen.”
The special election for the vacant at-large seat on the Iowa City Council will be on Oct. 2.