A family walked into Amal Barre’s office at the housing complex holding a letter from a collection agency. The name on the letter – River Hills Apartments – stood out to Barre. It was the complex she visited with her mother when Barre was a child. The family was one of more than a hundred households, primarily from Somali and Sudanese communities, that were displaced when the complex was sold and redeveloped into market-rate apartments in 2018. The letter stated that the family owed unpaid rent, an error made in the transfer of ownership. After eight months of phone calls, Barre helped the family resolve the issue.
Experiences like this one while serving as Services Coordinator for CommonBond Communities shaped Barre’s understanding that housing instability is more complex than just a lack of affordable housing. Her research and advocacy efforts over several years have offered a planning lens to local housing conversations – connecting the dots between decisions about how communities are designed and the impact on low-income households.
“One of my main goals is trying to get people to understand how critical of a role planning as an institution plays in our lives,” said Barre via Zoom from her Amsterdam apartment as she works on her Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Governance.
“We can’t do the work of housing justice or children staying in school or being in a healthy neighborhood and having access to those essential resources that make up the social determinants of health without engaging with the institution of planning. That’s the institution that creates and recreates the built environment that we’re in every single day.”
By sharing data and the perspectives of those who’ve experienced displacement, she’s elevated the consequences of not including and valuing all people when making decisions.
“Barre has been committed to following the data and talking specifically about people and the role of housing instability,” said Matt Hauge, Director of Communications and Community Outreach at the Polk County Housing Trust Fund.
“So often, the affordable housing conversation shifts to creating units. We need to add housing supply, absolutely, but we can’t be a healthy region unless we’re also thinking about the stability of people in their homes.”
Mid-Iowa Health Foundation has supported Barre’s community-informed, data-driven approach to examining housing instability in several ways since she joined the HealthConnect Fellowship in summer 2020. Most recently, the Foundation helped fund the Polk County Housing Trust Fund’s Graduate Fellowship in Housing Justice that Barre received to support her work in the 2022-23 academic year.
"Understanding the depth of connection between housing and health is not simply about consistent access to a roof over your head, but also about establishing a sense of belonging and connectedness that allows one to fully engage with their community,” said Mid-Iowa Health Foundation President and CEO Dr. Nalo Johnson.
“Amal’s keen ability to apply a community planning lens to our broader understanding of community health has strengthened the ways in which cross-sector partners view their work as also impacting housing and health.”
The conversation Barre has elevated across sectors to inspire a coordinated, systemic approach to preserve affordable housing and prevent displacement begins with her own childhood.
Originally from Somalia, Barre moved to Des Moines with her mother at age 11 after living in Russia for three years. Barre watched her mother navigate the challenges of adapting to a new country without the language skills or social network to aide in the transition. As they became more settled in Des Moines, Barre’s mother helped other Somali families with child care, obtaining driver’s licenses, and getting to the store.
“Those were formative years in terms of helping me understand how people within and across our communities not only lived, but also the life they had access to based on the material and nonmaterial resources that were available to them,” Barre said.
While earning Bachelor of Science degree in sociology and cultural anthropology, Barre studied social and income inequality and the movement of refugee and immigrant populations. Her interest in housing issues grew while working with families who’d experienced homelessness as a case manager with St. Stephen’s Human Services in the Twin Cities and as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.
When working toward her master’s degree in urban and regional planning at the University of Amsterdam, Barre reflected on how she was the only woman of color in the program and that her interests in planning were rooted in unravelling the experiences of low-income households in the city.
“I realized if I wanted to carry forward and honor the experiences that I had working with low-income households and families experiencing homelessness, I had to become a planner that operated in non-traditional spaces,” she said.
When she graduated, instead of seeking a planning position within city government or with a private firm as most people with her degree do, Barre joined CommonBond Communities where she helped residents access needed resources that allowed them to maintain stable housing and thrive.
In the process of her work, Barre recognized how having information could not only support clients before they experienced a crisis, but also elevate what was happening with families to those making decisions that could address barriers. Barre especially saw how low-income families struggled significantly during the pandemic – losing jobs, becoming sick, and facing other challenges that led to instability.
“I think it’s those moments of companionship and, often times, listening to someone else’s story, that really created this internal drive I’ve had for the last few years to get other people to make the connections that I have been able to make around the various issues that create a very different life for some members in our community,” Barre said.
Through work as a Mid-Iowa Health Foundation HealthConnect Fellow, Barre analyzed Iowa eviction data by zip codes to understand where housing instability was occurring and to help decision makers, landlords, and service providers better respond. The website – unevictIA– featured maps overlayed with Census data to see a bigger picture of neighborhoods and zip code areas most affected by eviction filings. With the release of the data, Barre presented the information to several groups working in housing and social service sectors.
The Mind the Map exhibit (2021 – 2022) – sponsored by Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, Oakridge Neighborhood Services, and United Way of Central Iowa – invited the broader community to experience maps of where evictions were occurring at the Des Moines Central Library or virtually and to reflect on the patterns they saw and solutions. Barre also collaborated with ArtForce Iowa to create the Margins of Error documentary, featuring local housing stakeholders’ perspectives of the challenges and opportunities for creating a housing system that works for all community members.
Barre’s work in creating the Mind the Map exhibit especially revealed the pattern of how Iowa tenant law, property management practices, and economic and community development decision making impact eviction filing patterns, especially for low-income households and lower income zip code areas in Iowa. As she dove deeper into her analysis of how systems work across the region, she came to understand that planners are central actors in our communities, often in a position of facilitating the interaction between public decision making and the private market. The concerns and voices of low-income households and households of color have historically been underrepresented in land-use and urban development decision-making processes (Urban Institute, 2023). How and when local neighborhoods are transformed and who is involved in the transformation process informs displacement trajectories.
“Amal’s work helped bring attention to where evictions are occurring in communities,” said Angie Arthur, Executive Director of Homeward and a HealthConnect Fellow.
“It helped demonstrate in numbers where areas of poverty are consolidated and that the effects of redlining and other discriminatory practices continue to have impact today on people in our communities. In her community discussions, she reminded folks that these numbers represent lives and families that have been uprooted.”
Barre entered her Ph.D. program at the University of Amsterdam in September 2022 with the goal of studying historical decisions that have influenced the present, and how current decision-making patterns inform our approach to and imagination of the future. Her research is based in Des Moines and Amsterdam and investigates how the interface between real estate market and public policy shape the displacement trajectories of low-income households.
“I am really trying to bridge the past and present,” Barre said, “so that we are better equipped with information about our built environment and people who shape our built environment and use that knowledge to create future that is truly about making things right and positioning us to value every single life equally regardless of what material resources people have access to.”
Barre’s track record of effective communications about the impact of housing stability caught the attention of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. The Trust Fund had invested in Barre’s UnevictIA project and sponsored the public exhibit, but after learning that Barre intended to continue her work at the Ph.D. level, the Trust Fund had a conversation about her academic and research goals.
Based on Barre’s research vision and her track record of leading innovative projects in the community, the conversation quickly turned toward a graduate fellowship opportunity that might appropriately invest in her continued research. Mid-Iowa Health Foundation agreed to provide critical grant support to make the one-year opportunity possible.
Through the fellowship, Barre received funds to continue research that aligned with her Ph.D. program and conduct public outreach relevant to Polk County. She continued to engage non-traditional partners across sectors in conversations about the implications of housing instability to support a coordinated, systemic approach to preserve affordable housing and prevent displacement. Still today, she continues to challenge various audiences to consider what resources are available within the community that can prevent harm to others.
“Housing is a system that requires scarcity. Housing is constructed and demolished. It invites. It displaces. Housing is the heart that palpitates throughout the body of our built environment. It controls the ways we interact within our communities and across to others. Houses are constructed daily. Some are given new life through rehabilitation. And others are destroyed, leaving people to scatter and build home someplace else.” - Margins of Error documentary, 2022
In 2021, Des Moines lost 530 affordable housing units, following a trend that has occurred over several years. Redevelopment projects and property ownership transfers have led to rezoning of buildings, demolition of existing units, and increased rents. The result is the reduced availability of affordable and accessible housing units, especially for households that live on fixed incomes.
Barre’s research of local government meeting minutes shows a lack of conversation about those who are being displaced when decision makers approve and fund redevelopment projects. For those who are displaced, finding a new place to live is not easy, especially if someone receives government assistance for housing, has a disability, and/or has an eviction or felony on their record. Most people are given 30 days’ notice to move out, or even less time, which is not enough to find a place to live.
“Not having a housing preservation strategy or policy in place makes it very easy for developers to come in and change the makeup of neighborhoods without thinking twice about what that means for the people who live there,” said Barre in a previous blog.
Those who understand the impacts firsthand, said Barre, are the ones providing services to families, particularly with immigrant and refugee communities. At times, she receives phone calls from those trying to help families asking what resources they can access.
One family, for example, was unlawfully evicted on Thanksgiving night in 2021 because of a complaint from a neighbor. While they could cover the first month’s rent for another apartment, they needed help with the deposit. Barre encouraged them to reach out to the local Rapid Rehousing Program, but there was a six-month wait to get enrolled in the program. Eventually the family moved in with another family member until they could save enough for their own place, but the situation put both households at greater risk of being evicted. This kind of situation happens often, Barre said, especially for households who cannot access many of the available emergency housing services provided to low-income households due to multiple barriers, including language, citizenship status, pending waitlists, or other restrictive eligibility criteria beyond income requirements.
She connects the situation to when she worked at CommonBond Communities, which had the goal of no evictions. Barre sees opportunities for property owners and managers to help tenants address their needs to avoid crises, as well as for municipal planning and economic development discussions to engage community-based organizations (CBOs) who understand the challenges households are facing.
“You can’t have real change until CBOs are at the center, because most of the time, people who have the power to change things are so far removed from what’s truly happening on the ground,” she said.
Dawn Martinez Oropeza, Executive Director of Al Éxito, agrees with the disconnection.
“I think there’s a really large gap between the people in power in our communities and their understanding of what the immigrant story or the refugee story is,” she said, having asked Barre for help with its Compa en Camino program for immigrant households. “There’s a belief that Polk County resources are available to everybody and it’s so easy to access, but nobody knew where to so they were turning to us for help.”
Martinez Oropeza has appreciated Barre’s efforts to help stakeholders see the bigger picture. “Amal is so intellectual but so grassroots all at the same time,” she said. “She is completely thinking of refugee and undocumented families. Amal is able to see the big picture and then have authentic inclusivity of families. It’s just part of who she is in thinking of every person.”
At a community input session to inform the vision for downtown Des Moines in late 2021, Barre walked around the room reading people’s ideas on what priorities of the community should be. Several post-it notes mentioned the need to address homelessness, providing direct interventions for those experiencing it. Several feedback comments suggested moving the youth homeless shelter out of the downtown area because the building was valuable property to develop. For Barre, these kinds of discussions reflect a misalignment in our value system and a lack of recognition of the impact our investment policies at the public, private, and philanthropic levels have on the displacement trajectories of low-income households.
The real issue she wants to elevate is how people are deeply connected to place: When redevelopment happens and people are forced from their homes, they experience impacts on multiple levels. There’s the emotional and psychological trauma of having to move and losing the support structures and community connections they’ve built around them. Then there’s the disconnection from people’s memories – their life story.
“I think about it as a matter of justice and a matter of us choosing who gets to have a stable existence both physically and non-physically,” she said. “Through decisions we are making we are deciding whose lives are worthy of being preserved in the context of place and in the context of being at home. It’s about valuing everyone equally.”
The concept is captured in Barre’s most recent documentary project – Walking in Place on Walker Street. In the film, Barre walks with local jazz musician in the place where his home was taken for the construction of Interstate 235. As he stands in what is now part of the East High School parking lot, he shares memories from when he was 8 years old. Barre hopes this is the first of many stories people tell as they visit the places they were forced to leave.
“Through Barre’s use of the family’s home videos in the documentary, you see the house, you see the family living in the house, and you’re face to face with those implications of what the family experienced,” said Hauge.
“Amal not only talks about data,” Hauge added, “but she also puts a very impactful human face on the need for housing stability, and she does it with an incredibly compassionate, caring, mindful way with how she represents herself in the community, which makes her an advocate that people relate to.”
Like “neurons in the brain,” Barre is striving to help others see how mental health, transportation, housing, and other issues are interconnected and a part of how communities are designed. Her ask is that those working to address these issues engage their city planners and that city planners seek to better understand people’s experiences and the full scope of consequences resulting from development decisions.
Barre also sees the need for organizations and leaders talking about inclusion and justice and celebrating successes with affordable housing to reflect on the harm that’s still created through policies and practices. For example, while the state of Iowa has touted its investments in building more affordable housing, the passing of Senate File 252 in 2021 restricted the authority of counties and municipal governments to protect tenants from income-source discrimination by enacting local tenant protection ordinances.
“It’s a constant conflict between the things we’re saying we stand for,” she said, “and the reality we see every day.”
Barre has encouraged others working on housing issues to advocate for policies that address evictions. Her work inspired other housing advocates, with leadership from Homeward Iowa and others, to persist with policy action, like advocating for a bill (HF 548) in the Iowa Legislature that would expunge eviction records made in error, resolved, or that happened years ago under certain conditions. A limited first step, the bill passed unanimously in the Iowa House and can still be considered in the 2024 session.
At a recent presentation to foundation leaders in Iowa, Barre encouraged funders to connect with people who are serving individuals and to go deeper than identifying the right framework or message to approach an issue, but to also inform the policies being made that impact issues. Without holistic perspectives and information, “we’re missing out on opportunities to do things differently,” she said.
As she finishes her Ph.D. in Amsterdam, Barre remains connected to Des Moines. She has family here and her research will focus on regional trends. While she has stepped back from delivering community presentations as she works on her research, she has launched the podcast Just Space with two planning academics who are part of a planning and environmental research collective. The first podcast conversation features an English professor based in Des Moines and explores what it means to be from a place, and the concepts of rootedness, belonging, and encounter. These are continued attempts to connect the dots across various perspectives of housing, health, and community.
“I am trying to figure out better ways to communicate my thoughts while also challenging myself to reach people in new ways than I have in the past,” Barre said. “The purpose of the podcast is to have conversations about planning with those within and outside the field. The first conversation was one of the most reflective I’ve had in a long time. I learned a lot and I’m eager to share the learning journey as I engage in reflection on the built and natural environment with others.”
Amal Barre's research and advocacy efforts address housing instability and the sense of belonging in the community.
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