The calendar is about to run out of days for Anawim Housing and two development partners to claim $7.5 million in federal tax credits for what could have been the first affordable housing development in Urbandale since 1996.

Proposed for a largely unused parking lot at Merle Hay Mall, the project would have brought the total number of affordable housing developments in the city to two, the least in Greater Des Moines, and would have provided some balm for what is confessed to be a sore spot for the City Council, which counts the addition of such housing among its strategic goals.

Yet it was the City Council that rejected Anawim’s proposal to build a 43-unit apartment building at 6301 and 6325 Douglas Ave. — north of the IHOP on the west side of the mall. The project was geared for families with annual incomes of $50,000 or less.

At a preliminary meeting with the City Council, the project, which has the support of Merle Hay Mall ownership, got what could be described as a warm reception for the project. It wasn’t a big old bear hug kind of warmth, but it was clear that most of the city’s five council members liked the idea. Most is an operative word here.

A few weeks after that meeting, the city’s planning staff gave the plan a thumbs-down. The project required an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan and a zoning change. In a report that to one reader, at least, seemed to peel back the fading paint on parking lot striping as it found reasons to oppose the project, city planners rejected the plan.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission did the same, on a 6-2 vote. The reasoning that led to the Planning and Zoning Commission debate can be found here (start on Page 14 and read through to Page 36). The tenor of the report and vote was "nice project, wrong location." Those aren’t unfamiliar words to affordable housing advocates.

"This is the ugly truth of the bias against affordable housing," Anawim President Russ Frazier said recently.

There always seems to be a better site; it isn’t always found.

The Planning and Zoning Commission decision triggered a requirement that council approval needed four "yes" votes out of the five-member body.

On Jan. 15, council members Mike Carver, Creighton Cox and Ron Pogge voted in favor. Council members Tom Gayman and David Russell killed the project with their two "no" votes. The vote was on an amendment to the comprehensive plan. Mayor Bob Andeweg held that the vote on the zoning change was not necessary as a result.

Earlier this month, the Iowa Finance Authority board found enough to like about the project to award $755,079 in federal low-income housing tax credits. Because the credits are awarded on an annual basis for 10 years, they carry a total value of $7.5 million.

That award would have taken a huge bite out of the $9 million project. However, the tax credit award must be claimed by May 3.

Frazier wants the City Council to vote on the zoning change. He would like a rehearing on the project.

Urbandale City Manager A.J. Johnson said it is unlikely another vote will be held before the May 3 deadline. In fact, city ordinance says the council cannot take up the issue for another year.

And a rehearing might not matter.

Gayman said recently that he supports Anawim Housing and the goal of establishing more affordable housing in Urbandale. As for bias against affordable housing, he said he has none.

He found much to fault with the location of the Anawim project. The parking lot does not provide green space for the children of families who would live in the apartment building. The building was tad too tall at four stories. There were issues with parking, but Anawim and development partners TWG Development of Indianapolis, Ind., and Greater Des Moines nonprofit Dream Catchers resolved those.

"The issue is trying to put a building on a lot that doesn’t have enough land to do what they what to do," Gayman said. "The building doesn’t fit in with character of that area. I think they are trying to put round pegs in a square hole."

He said there are other sites: A former Kmart on Hickman Road could be cleared with plenty of land for a larger project with space for a park; the office tower at Merle Hay Mall; or other land farther north on the Merle Hay property.

Two of those sites — the office tower and a former theater are in Des Moines.

"It’s very generous of Tom to offer another city’s land," Frazier said. "Also, the project received more points in the IFA scoring for being in Urbandale rather than Des Moines because of the lack of affordable housing in Urbandale."

Frazier has compiled a list of what might be called the affordable housing sins of Urbandale, at least from an advocate’s point of view.

Based on Internal Revenue Service records, Urbandale has the fewest units of affordable housing of any city with a population of at least 20,000 in the state and has longest tax credit draught of any large city in Iowa.

Frazier also points out that the city’s comprehensive plan leaves several openings for approval of a project that revitalizes older areas of the city, triggers new development and reacts to market changes.

The City Council missed a "golden" opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to affordable housing, Council member Cox said recently.

Cox has lobbied for affordable housing since arriving on the Council in 2011, but has yet to see a project advance. He lived in the city’s only other affordable apartment complex, Cross Creek, after graduating from college.

The Council vote on the Anawim projects was "unfortunate. We’ll see if they reconsider," he said.

Frazier has scheduled a news conference at the proposed site for 11:30 a.m. today.

It is no coincidence, he said, that he is readdressing the Urbandale City Council vote during the Polk County Housing Trust Fund’s Affordable Housing Week.