January 22, 2011

After Years of Debate, Lack of Action Frustrates Hopes for Affordable Housing

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Houses by Habitat for Humanity are currently being worked on near the edge of Iowa City's southeast side. Photo taken on Thursday, January 13, 2011.Photo by Benjamin Roberts of the Press-Citizen

Houses by Habitat for Humanity are currently being worked on near the edge of Iowa City's southeast side. Photo taken on Thursday, January 13, 2011.Photo by Benjamin Roberts of the Press-Citizen

For more than a decade, Iowa City has grappled with a chronic social problem – how to provide adequate and affordable housing for people who don’t earn enough to pay for a place to live. The dilemma seems to have stumped and perhaps frustrated everyone involved – city officials, housing providers, the school district administrators, developers and especially the people these programs are supposed to help.

These homes are built by Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity in southeast Iowa City in the area of Indigo Drive, Thistle Court and Whispering Prairie Avenue. Habitat sells them at no profit and no interest to low-income families with 15-year mortgages. Photo taken on Thursday, January 13, 2011. Photo by Benjamin Roberts of the Press-Citizen.

  • Perceptions: People make a lot of assumptions about affordable housing, and some even oppose its construction in their neighborhood. However, many of those same people drive by assisted housing every day and probably don’t realize it, local housing providers say.
  • The Chicago Myth: A widely circulated urban myth, housing providers say, is that the majority of people receiving housing assistance in Iowa City are low-income people who moved here from Chicago.
  • Legal Issues: The most recent setback for the city’s affordable housing discussion came last summer when a local housing provider accused the city of using discriminatory means of deciding where to locate housing.

After nearly ten years of ongoing discussion, studies and much debate, the Iowa City Council revisited the issue of affordable housing last fall, this time saying it will adopt an effective housing policy to begin addressing the issue.

But the primary roadblock to a solution still exists: Too many competing interests and conflicting opinions have made progress, to this point, impossible. Meanwhile, the need for affordable housing in the city rapidly continues to increase as does poverty among its residents.

“I think we’re just not doing anything over the years,” Shelter House Director Crissy Canganelli, said. “It’s been the same conversation. We keep doing new studies, new assessments and the information comes back consistently, you need more housing options for people.”

Lack of housing

Jerry Anthony, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa. Source: Press-Citizen

Jerry Anthony, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa, described the situation in one word: “Dire.”

Although Johnson County ranks fifth in population among Iowa counties, it has some of the greatest need for affordable housing, Anthony said.

A 2007 housing market analysis of the area, the most current available, showed that while new home construction is vibrant, a majority of those homes are not considered affordable. The study found that the unmet need for affordable homes likely could reach more than 2,700 units by 2012.

According to a survey completed by the United Way of Johnson County in 2009, 19.4 percent of all households in the county are cost-burdened to some degree. Cost burdened is defined as a household that spends more than 30 percent of its income on housing costs, including utilities and rent or mortgage payments.

However, some say that providing more assisted housing and more government-funded services will only encourage more people in need of those services to move here and will not help solve the problem.

“The interplay between supply and demand is quite difficult to zero in on,” Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said.

In 2000, there was no wait to receive assistance from Iowa City’s Housing Choice Voucher Program. Those who applied and qualified could receive a voucher — money to help pay for rent and utilities — almost immediately.

However, by 2005, the waiting list for vouchers had grown to 2,650 names. The waiting list was closed in January 2010, and today it takes nearly two years for qualifying individuals and families to receive a voucher.

Iowa City Housing Administrator Steve Rackis. Source: Press-Citizen

The Iowa City Housing Authority distributes 1,214 vouchers annually. In 2009, the Housing Authority, whose services are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, issued about $5.7 million in housing assistance payments for rental properties in Johnson County, Housing Authority Administrator Steve Rackis said.

Rackis said that low turnover leads to more time on the waiting list. Only about 20 percent to 25 percent of participants leave the program a year, he said. That, coupled with no expansion of the program since 1998, has led to an ever-longer list.

Elevated home values in Iowa City also create more need for housing assistance.

The median home sale value in 2010 was $160,000, according to the Iowa City Assessor’s Office.

For an individual making a median income of $54,500 or a family of four making $77,800, homes of that price often are out of reach, said Tracey Achenbach, executive director of the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County.

In addition to higher home sale value, rental prices here are higher than in other parts of the state, said David Kacena, president of the Greater Iowa City Area Apartment Association.

According to an annual survey by Cook Appraisal, the average cost to rent a two-bedroom apartment within one mile of the Pentacrest is $722 a month, not including utilities. Throughout the rest of Iowa City, the average rent is $607 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Kacena said that property taxes, fees associated with rental permits and insurance rates all drive up the cost of rentals.

The student population also skews the market, although he said there are no statistics on what percentage of the rental market is made up of students.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek. Source: City of Iowa City website

Others point to the multitude of high-paying university and hospital jobs as a reason for higher housing costs and a higher cost of living.

People also are constantly moving in and out of the city to work or attend classes, which can have an impact, Hayek said.

“In addition to the relatively high salaries people earn in Iowa City, our housing stock is limited just in terms of sheer number,” he said. “I think that will always result in housing being more expensive in Iowa City.”

Difference of opinion

A popular idea among advocates for increasing the amount of affordable housing is that of inclusionary zoning, which requires or incentivizes developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units in new developments.

This idea gained traction in 2005 when it was recommended to the Iowa City Council by the Scattered Site Housing Task Force.

However, private developers say that being required to include affordable housing in new development isn’t as profitable for them. Developers and other housing experts say that an inclusionary zoning mandate, coupled with Iowa City’s already-strict building policies, could drive development to other communities.

The Aniston Village development near Grant Wood Elementary includes single family homes built by the Housing Fellowship. Owning or managing 138 rental homes in Iowa City and Coralville, it is the largest non-profit provider of affordable housing in Johnson County. Photo by Benjamin Roberts of the Press-Citizen.

“I do believe that if the city of Iowa City would adopt a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy that builders then would go to surrounding areas,” said Maryann Dennis, executive director of The Housing Fellowship, a non-profit organization that works to increase the availability of affordable homes in Iowa City and other Johnson County communities.

These conflicting interests make if difficult for the city to consider inclusionary zoning as a viable solution, and officials have been left “paralyzed,” said former city councilor Karen Kubby.

“The topic of affordable housing, especially when you’re talking about inclusionary zoning, is very intimidating for one community to do on its own because the fear is that all the development will happen in Coralville, North Liberty or all the unincorporated areas of Johnson County,” Kubby said.

Most members of the task force, with the exception of Hayek and Don Anciaux, then-chairman of the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission, supported inclusionary zoning in part because it would force a more even distribution of affordable housing throughout neighborhoods.

However, some believe a lack of political will among council members is what stands in the way of providing more affordable housing.

“City council members face a lot of pressure from developers, and they say if you do this (inclusionary zoning), we’ll leave the city, and city council members need to have the courage to call the developers’ bluff, and they don’t,” Anthony said. “I’m absolutely convinced that the developers’ argument is a bluff.”

Karen Kubby, a former city council member. Photo by John Richard of the Press-Citizen.

Kubby said that an inclusionary zoning policy would put all developers on a level playing field.

“It makes everybody live under the same rules,” Kubby said.

Providing incentives to developers, such as subsidies or an expedited planning process, could help them turn the same profit while still providing affordable housing, said Mark Patton, director of Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity.

“You have to make it so they can make money doing it; giving them an incentive, fiscal gain that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” Patton said. “That’s the balancing act — I would put incentives out there to encourage developers to bring in concepts and ideas and proposals that they’d still make money on but also meet a public policy goal.”

Still others, such as Hayek, oppose inclusionary zoning from an ideological standpoint.

“That’s the extreme,” he said. “I am not comfortable with a policy like that because you are taking a community goal and requiring an individual developer to pay to achieve that goal. If it is a community goal, then the community should pay for it.”

For developers, it’s ultimately about the bottom line.

“You simply can’t talk about affordability when someone builds a $2 million home out there,” Glenn Siders, vice president of Southgate Development Services, said. “They don’t want to see a little $150,000 thing next to them, so it’s a case by case situation. That’s why I would be adamantly opposed to inclusionary zoning.”

Those in favor of scattering affordable housing without instituting a strict policy such as inclusionary zoning say providing neighborhoods with a more diverse mix of housing styles is one solution.

City officials often point to the Peninsula development as a model that provides a diversity of single-family, townhome and apartment living in one neighborhood. But the price of housing in that neighborhood is on the higher end of what’s affordable for many Iowa City residents.

Patton, who constantly searches for property on which to build Habitat for Humanity homes, said large lot sizes and high demand make it difficult to find affordable land in Iowa City.

“I can buy an infill lot in downtown Fort Dodge for $8,000 to $10,000,” Patton said. “If I could find one in Iowa City, it would be $30,000 to $40,000. That’s just the starting point.”

High demand for student housing also is a factor in high housing costs, particularly in the rental market.

“The elephant in the room is the university,” Patton said. “If it wasn’t for students in this town, then demand for housing would drop dramatically. It goes across all sectors, but obviously rental housing.

“We all love the university because they bring lots of money to the community, but it changes the whole market. On a square foot basis, students can afford higher rent,” he said.

Disparity in land prices makes it expensive and more difficult to build in some parts of the city. Those areas of the city that were deemed undevelopable by the fair share matrix also happen to be some of the least expensive areas for new construction.

Housing matrix represents a controversial step in affordable housing debate: “Of 15 recommendations made to the Iowa City Council by a housing task force convened in 2005 the only one adopted by the city was to implement the use of a fair share matrix when determining where new affordable and assisted housing should be located…” Read more here.

The city determined that new assisted rental properties should not be built in census tract 18 (south of Highway 6 and east of the Iowa River) or in census tract 4 (west of Mormon Trek Boulevard) due to an already high amount.

Hayek said location of affordable housing is a tradeoff.

“One question that we’ll have to answer at some point in this process is, if you have a finite number of dollars to apply toward affordable housing, do you spend it in the least expensive parts of town, in which case you get more units, or do you spend it throughout the community, in which case you get fewer units,” he said.

“Is it a public goal to ensure a better distribution of that housing even if it results in fewer units?”

The city needs to dedicate more local resources and become more creative in the way it approaches spreading affordable housing throughout the city, others say.

In addition to HUD funding used by the Housing Authority, Iowa City receives $1.5 million to $2 million annually in Community Development Block Grants and HOME funds to aid affordable housing development.

However, due to recent state and federal budget cuts, housing advocates say it’s crucial for the city to find more resources for funding.

“The buck stops at the city,” Anthony said. “The city has to do it, and therefore cities have to become creative. You have to come up with programs that do not involve more taxes.”

The city has worked to identify additional outside funding beyond CDBG and HOME funds, Community Development Planner Tracy Hightshoe said.

Two newer programs include the Single-Family New Construction Program and the UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership. The city received more than $5 million from the Iowa Department of Economic Development for the Single-Family New Construction Program, which also served as a flood relief program after the 2008 flood.

Mark Patton, director of Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity. Source: Press-Citizen

The UniverCity Partnership was an effort between the city and the university to help balance the number of owner-occupied single family and rental houses near campus. That program was awarded a $1.25 million I-Jobs grant to assist with housing rehabilitation.

Others say changes can be made to make housing more affordable without costing taxpayers more money, but it will require leadership from the city.

Current zoning regulations within many Iowa City neighborhoods do not allow for multi-family developments, which limits the amount of affordable housing developers can build, Patton said. Allowing developers to build more units on smaller lots would create more housing while still allowing developers to turn a profit.

“It’s a question of whether leaders are leading or following,” Patton said. “Leaders should be out front saying ‘We need smaller homes. We need more energy-efficient homes. We need more dense population because we don’t have the land.’”

Hayek said it is difficult for the city to commit the necessary resources to affordable housing because other city-funded services deserve attention, too.

“Cities have a myriad of demands on them for services and only so many dollars to address those demands,” he said. “One of the great challenges of operating a city is striking a balance between needs in this area and needs in another area. We need affordable housing, but we also need streets, libraries, police protection and animal control, and dollars are increasingly limited for governments. Iowa City is no exception.”

(This project was collaboration of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and IowaWatch.org, the non-profit news website of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. The Press-Citizen’s features editor and specialty publications manager, Tricia Brown, edited the project, and its photographer, Benjamin Roberts, took the photographs. IowaWatch Staff Writer Lauren Mills designed the IowaCenter’s page layout)