January 22, 2011

Housing Matrix Represents a Controversial Step in Affordable Housing Debate

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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.

The matrix, developed by the Scattered Site Housing Task Force, served as a guide for city officials to develop a map identifying potential concentrations of assisted housing and where future housing should be placed.

Iowa City is shown divided by census districts (outlined by grey lines) and school boundaries (outlined in red). The black numbers inside circle represent the number of housing vouchers for the area and the colored dot represent assisted housing. The census districts 4 and 18 are highlighted. Due to the high number of assisted housing in census block groups 4-1 and 18-2, future assisted rental housing is prohibited. Source: Iowa City City Government

The fair share matrix states that the percentage of total housing and the percentage of assisted housing in a census block group, or specific geographic unit, should be similar. For example, if a particular census block group contains 15 percent of total housing in the city, it also should contain no more than 15 percent of all assisted housing units in the city.

The current version of the map, created in April 2010, indicates several areas of Iowa City where future assisted rental housing should be prohibited, most notably census block groups 4-1 and 18-2. Those areas include neighborhoods west of Mormon Trek Boulevard and south of Highway 6 and east of the Iowa River, respectively.

The decision to prohibit additional housing in those areas has drawn controversy for several reasons.

First, the decision to “scatter” affordable and assisted housing was prompted largely by concerns raised by the Iowa City Community School District that concentrations of poverty were having a profound negative impact on certain schools. School officials cited high numbers of students receiving free and reduced lunches as evidence of the concentration.

The economic disparity between elementary schools is stark as evidenced by the school lunch data. Data released in December shows that Mark Twain and Grant Wood elementary schools had the highest free and reduced lunch rates for the 2010-11 school year, at 80.2 percent and 68 percent, respectively. By contrast, Wickham and Lincoln elementary schools had the lowest rates, at 5.5 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

Iowa City Community School District Superintendent Steve Murley.

Iowa City Community School District Superintendent Steve Murley said students benefit from diversity of all kinds, including socio-economic status, and some elementary schools lack that diversity.

“Children do best when they are in a building that has a wide variety of, and then fill in the blank so that you’ve got a good balance between girls and boys, you’ve got a good ethnic and racial balance, you’ve got a good socio-economic status balance,” Murley said. “So that any demographic tag that you would look at for children is well-represented in the building.”

However, Jerry Anthony, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa and a member of the city’s Scattered Site Housing Task Force, and other local housing experts said the district’s evidence of this lack of diversity is based on nothing more than empty data.

“We asked the school board to give us numbers to make their point; they would not provide that information,” Anthony said. “The case for the whole exercise, in my opinion, was based on hearsay.”

He argues that it is inaccurate to directly correlate a high number of students receiving free and reduced lunches with an over-concentration of assisted housing.

“The kids who are on free and reduced lunch and not subsidized housing vastly outnumber the kids who are in subsidized housing,” Anthony said.

Hayek disagrees that the numbers are irrelevant, saying that regardless of whether the school district provided information to support their assertion of a concentration of assisted housing, the concentration of poverty within school attendance areas is very real.

“Not all students in subsidized housing get free and reduced lunch, and vice versa,” Hayek said. “It’s not simply concentrations of subsidized housing, it’s concentrations of poverty, whether it’s subsidized or not, and that is of concern.”

This article is a part of a series on affordable housing in Iowa City. Check out: After years of debate, lack of action frustrates hopes for affordable housing

“After nearly 10 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…”

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  1. Pingback: After years of debate, lack of action frustrates hopes for affordable housing | The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism

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