By Dan Russo
MAQUOKETA — Moments after Catholic Charities officials and visitors concluded a dedication ceremony for the agency’s newly acquired affordable housing facility in Maquoketa, Nikki Robinson walked through a grassy common area of Heartland East on her way to take care of some routine business. Having lived at the apartment complex as a child in the 1980s and then having returned as an adult tenant about three years ago, the young woman has a unique perspective on the recent changes.
“I’ve been at these apartments quite a bit of my life, so I’ve seen a lot of good upgrades. There used to be a lot of issues,” she said Oct. 2. “There are a lot of people in this town that are struggling, just like in any other community, so it makes it a lot nicer for people who don’t have a lot of money but are actually trying to work, who actually need income based housing in order to live a good life.”
Robinson returned to the complex around the same time Catholic Charities began the process of acquiring the property from Fidelity Bank, which had obtained it from a previous owner. The rental assistance offered at Heartland East, made possible by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, allows residents to contribute 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities, with the USDA making up the difference. This means the housing is affordable for Robinson and her neighbors, many of whom have had to overcome financial struggles as well as other problems.
“I actually was in a relationship with an alcoholic, and I got kicked out, and I was facing being homeless because I couldn’t live at home with my parents,” she recalled. “I went to a local place called Operation New View, and they actually got me into this place, and it’s actually been a big life changer for me because I’m independent now and being able to work.”
Built in the 1970s by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Heartland East includes 28 units — 11 two-bedroom and 17 one-bedroom apartments. As part of the deal struck with the USDA, Catholic Charities has agreed to extend the rental assistance contract for another 30 years. As owner, Catholic Charities manages and maintains the property. The agency began major renovations, thanks, in part, to receiving a $277,000 grant and reserve funding needed for repairs and improvements, including $170,000 from the Iowa Housing Trust Fund.
On the day of the dedication, visitors were able to tour some of the renovated apartments, which include two upgraded units that are accessible to people with disabilities. Providing affordable housing has been part of the mission of Catholic Charities of the archdiocese for decades. Heartland East is unique in that it is the first housing facility owned by the agency in a rural area.
“Jackson County was identified as an area that lacked affordable housing options,” Tracy Morrison, executive director of Catholic Charities, told the crowd at the dedication. “We were really proud to be able to acquire Heartland East and offer a home to 28 families here.”
Morrison and the Catholic Charities housing director, Matthew Roddy, thanked Fidelity Bank, the City of Maquoketa, the contractors who worked on the improvements, agency staff and many others. Many in attendance had contributed to the project in some way.
“We’re here to meet (residents’) needs and to help them out,” said Roddy. “We’re here to make life good and normal so that people do not have to worry about housing. They can move on to other things in life. … I want to thank all the residents here for being my inspiration.”
The agency installed new heating and cooling systems in every apartment, upgraded floors and kitchens in vacant units, and did other improvements to common areas. Although a large amount of the work is complete, more is underway.
“Since Catholic Charities has taken it over, this is more family oriented than it was,” said Diane Brady, a Maquoketa resident who was hired to be site manager. “When I first got here, you never saw moms and kids outside, and you do now, because it’s quieter. We’re hoping to have (all units) filled before winter.”
Archbishop Michael Jackels led a prayer and blessing to conclude the dedication.
“We’re asking God’s blessing upon those who made this possible,” he said. “We ask God’s blessing on those who will work here, as the guardians of these houses, but especially ask God’s blessing on those who live here. Loving God, send your angels to bring your message of care and protection over this place and the people who live here and work here.”
Diane Brady, site manager at Heartland East Apartments, holds the ‘now renting’ sign at the dedication ceremony Oct. 2. Agency employees Patrick Husemann (left) and Aaron Gerard hold the larger sign behind her. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)