While only those who are legal residents of the Iowa City Housing Authority’s jurisdiction are able to receive housing assistance, that doesn’t stop out-of-state residents from applying to the program.
The current waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher program includes 208 people from Johnson County and portions of Iowa and Washington counties and 703 people from outside its jurisdiction, including a large number from the Chicago metro area.
The Housing Authority issues 1,214 Housing Choice Vouchers annually, which are allocated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, to help local residents cover their rent.
The housing authority stopped accepting applications in early 2010. The waiting list sits at more than 900 names, and the length of stay on the list exceeds two years.
The housing authority implemented a residency preference five years ago to help ensure assistance was given to local residents.
“So for an elderly or disabled person and families with kids under 18 in our jurisdiction, the wait is approximately two years,” housing authority administrator Steve Rackis said. “If you are outside of our jurisdiction, the wait is indefinite.”
Still, Rackis said there are a number of reasons why those outside the area apply, including the perception that the local housing authority doles out assistance for the entire state.
“I applied for it because I was living in Chicago, and all of the housing here was either full or closed. There was little to no work, being on public assistance, it was hard,” said Veronica Harvey, 41.
“I wasn’t for sure what part of Iowa (the housing authority) covered. I heard about Iowa from people who told me about it in school,” she said.
Harvey said she applied for assistance in a number of cities and states, not just Iowa City. She ultimately moved to Marshall, Ill., a town of about 3,000 just across the border from Terre Haute, Ind., with two of her children.
“They offered me housing here, I took it and have been here a year and three months,” she said in December.
For others, moving to Iowa City would mean a chance to reunite with friends and family.
“I have some friends that moved up there; they felt good about it,” said Calvin Montgomery Jr., 63, of Chicago. “The only thing that keeps me here is my mother. She’s 91.
Montgomery said he has visited the city more than once.
“If I were to move anywhere, it would be Iowa City. Everybody I met, I enjoyed,” he said.
The number of Illinois residents on the waiting list greatly outnumbers applicants from any other state.
According to housing authority documents, 521 people from Illinois — the majority from the Chicago metro area — are on the list, followed most closely by other parts of Iowa and Indiana.
Some Chicago residents said they are aware of the residency preference but decided to apply anyway.
“I’m aware of the residency requirement, but I would leave tomorrow if accepted,” said Yvonne Brownlee, 38, who lives in Chicago with her daughter and granddaughter.
Brownlee said her neighborhood has grown increasingly violent in the 14 years she’s lived there.
“It’s a nice neighborhood, but it’s not like it used to be,” she said. “There’s a lot of gang activity, and the schools are not as good as they are (in Iowa City).”
Brownlee, who is disabled, said she’s not receiving housing assistance and struggles to make ends meet.
She has been to Iowa City several times to visit her sister and nieces who live here and said she also applied for housing assistance in Dubuque.
Rackis said he does not know for sure why so many people from Chicago apply for assistance, but he said his program strictly adheres to the residency preference.
“If someone can’t bring in two suitable items to prove residency, they’re not a resident and we don’t move forward with them” he said.
The housing authority’s online application could be a draw, Rackis said. Other housing programs, such as the one in Waterloo, require applicants to sign up in person.
That discourages out-of-state residents from applying, said Ethel Washington, director of the Waterloo Housing Authority.
The Waterloo list remains open, despite more than 1,900 applicants and a two-and-a-half-year wait, Washington said.
Other Eastern Iowa housing programs have a wait of six months to more than three years. Residency policies elsewhere range from within the city, the county and the state to none at all.
Regardless of the wait or the requirements, people will move to areas they think can improve their livelihood and that of their children, Shelter House director Crissy Canganelli said.
“There have been people who have been coming into this community from other places, as has happened across the country,” she said. “People have been in motion, migrating if you will.”
Although it might make some people uneasy, the rationale behind the decision makes sense, Canganelli said.
“If I have part of my family who moved several years ago to Iowa City, I hear from my sister that the kids are in school and they’re not getting shot at and they’re getting a good education; if I start to hear positive things about other experiences that other members of my family or friends have had in different places, what’s to keep me in place where there’s no hope, no opportunity and a lot of exposure to danger?” she said.
“You can’t stand on the interstate exits and pick and choose who comes.”
(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)