Residents’ Long Wait for Vouchers, Chance to Own a Home

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Janet Smith has been on the waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher program since moving to Iowa City in 2002. She has worked two jobs for the last four years to help move her and her family from a small apartment to their current duplex on First Avenue in southeast Iowa City. She is still on the waiting list for a voucher. Source: Press-Citizen

Deborah Case-Schutzman will be the first to tell you her home is crowded. She lives in a two-bedroom mobile home near Cedar Rapids with her six children and ex-husband. Right now, she said she feels there are no other options.

Case-Schutzman applied for a Housing Choice Voucher from the Iowa City Housing Authority in February 2009, but like more than 900 others in need of assistance, her wait could be several more years.

“Sometimes I think, ‘God, I waited forever for this,’” she said about the time she’s already been on the waiting list. “But we’re not homeless, so we’re not a priority.”

Case-Schutzman used to live in Iowa City with other family members but moved to help care for her children. She would like to move out of the mobile home park and find another rental property but said finding something within her price range is a challenge.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “It’s just too darn expensive. I want to live in a good neighborhood where we don’t have to worry about being harassed or mugged or that my kids are running with the wrong people. There isn’t anything available in a decent neighborhood that’s cheap.”

Case-Schutzman, 38, said she works mostly from home, caring for her children and helping her ex-husband run his drywall and contracting company.

She said she is familiar with the stereotypes associated with assisted housing, but she said it’s not fair to apply them to everyone.

“Everybody’s different,” she said. “I think there are some people that could try harder. I was just going over the books a few days ago. We’ve had months where we had $10,000 come through our hands, but there’s always something to cover.”

Of the more than 900 people on the waiting list for the housing authority’s voucher program, about 330 list Iowa addresses. Only 200 of those list addresses within the Housing Authority’s jurisdiction, which includes all of Johnson County and parts of Washington and Iowa counties.

Steve Rackis, executive director of the Housing Authority, said residency requirements are illegal, but his office does implement a residency preference.

Rackis also noted that preference cannot be based on how long an applicant has lived in the jurisdiction.

At the Iowa City Housing Authority, preference is given first to individuals displaced by government action or natural disaster, followed by families with minor children or elderly or disabled families who live within the jurisdiction and then by adult families within the jurisdiction.

Because of the high demand, those lower on the list — elderly or disabled families, families with minor children and adult families who do not live within the jurisdiction — will wait indefinitely for assistance, Rackis said.

Janet Smith of Iowa City first applied for a voucher in 2002. At the time, she was preparing to move here from Chicago to stay with her daughter.

“I just saw hope down here,” Smith said. “In Chicago, it was so hard I couldn’t make it. You know, when my daughter helped me out, she told me, ‘I’ll find you a place to stay.’ I started looking for work, and it was a struggle, but then I got on my feet and kept on going.”

Smith, 52, lived in an apartment on Lakeside Drive for several years before moving into the two-bedroom duplex she shares with her husband and two of her teenage grandchildren.

She has worked full time for the university in the Hillcrest Marketplace since 2006 and part time at Systems Unlimited since 2005.

Smith worked three jobs for about a year, but had to quit one of them after getting sick, she said.

Despite not having a job when she first arrived in Iowa City, the only financial assistance Smith said she has received is through her husband, who is on disability because of arthritis in his back.

Smith said her family has worked hard to get themselves to this point.

“Sometimes it was a challenge before I got with the university,” she said. “I was taking out a lot of payday loans. I got in that cycle where I was living from payday loan to check. It got so hard. Now I just budget and make sure all my bills are paid.”

Smith said she still has dreams of owning her own home and has considered programs that provide down payment assistance.

“I’ve always wanted a home, you know, because I have grandkids, and they live here,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a struggle, but, you know, I just pray and do the best that I can.”

(This project was collaboration of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and, 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)