A community divided: Racial segregation on the rise in Iowa City

Affordable housing -- photo by Adam Burke
Iowa City’s black population has become more and more isolated, and obstacles with regard to housing and housing assistance are exacerbating the issue. — photo by Adam Burke

Iowa City is the hub of what has derisively been termed “The People’s Republic of Johnson County” — a reference to the county’s professed left-of-center political and cultural values. A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won the county since Richard Nixon in 1960. In 2014, meanwhile, GOP governor Terry Branstad won every Iowa county with one exception: Johnson County.

And yet, when it comes to the issue of fair housing discrimination against black residents, Iowa City’s progressive nature seems to drop in favor of regression and segregation.

Last year, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center, in conjunction with the City of Iowa City, released an extensive and damning report on the state of fair housing in Iowa City titled “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice.” While racial segregation in terms of housing has declined nationwide, with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research concluding that, “As of 2010, the separation of blacks from individuals of other races stood at its lowest level in nearly a century,” the rate in Iowa City has skyrocketed.

The authors of the study used a demographic tool known as the Index of Dissimilarity (IoD), where the “evenness of distribution” of two groups (in the case of Iowa City, whites and blacks) is measured using a mathematical formula which produces an IoD score which gives the percentage of each group that would have to move in order to give an area “racial parity,” with a score above 60 generally indicating extreme racial segregation. In 1990, Iowa City’s IoD score was 44; in 2010, 55.

Census maps, meanwhile, provide a stark visual representation of Iowa City on the brink of reaching high levels of segregation, with black residents mostly clustered in Iowa City’s southeast and far-west sides, and white populations dominating most of the rest of the city, particularly downtown and the north side.            


So, why do such high degrees of racial segregation exist in Iowa City? Discriminatory practices on the part of local landlords could be part of the problem, the study indicates. Many affordable housing advocates interviewed by the study cited instances of landlords not calling potential tenants back due to having an “undesirable accents;” others described landlords flat-out refusing to accept any applicant with a housing voucher. Assisted renters (that is, renters who require some form of government assistance in order to rent properties) contacted by the 2013 study frequently cited the possession of Housing Choice vouchers or other forms of public assistance as a reason for being denied a property, with 47 percent of renters who reported being discriminated against saying it was either because they possessed Section 8 or another type of government assistance (discrimination which is legal under both Iowa and Federal law). Indeed, one renter commented that, “Quite a lot of property management companies would stop communication with me, or lose their friendliness toward me when I told them I was in the Section 8 program.”

Some renters felt the underlying presence of racial bias when discussing public assistance with Iowa City landlords, with one writing, “I would set up viewing for an apartment or housing, They would meet me before the showing. Seeing that I’m black they ask me ‘Are you on any housing assistance?’ I say yes. They say, ‘Sorry we don’t accept that.’ And they will not want to show the apartment they had listed.” Another renter even suggested that landlords in the city just don’t feel comfortable renting units to blacks, stating, “I am black … and I have, a white friend, he told me that, most landlords won’t rent to blacks because they tear up the units, they are always fighting and are ignorant.”

There are other plausible explanations as well. A 2013 report issued by the Iowa City Coalition for Racial Justice found a high degree of overlap between race and class within Johnson County, with 40 percent of black residents living below the poverty line compared to 16 percent of whites. The fact that Iowa City is the fourteenth most segregated metropolitan area by income in the country, according to the Martin Prosperity Institute, means that, in a county where you are more likely to be poor if you’re black rather than white, segregation by income can also mean de facto segregation by race.

On a similar note, black residents in Iowa City are much more significantly limited in their ability to take out mortgages than whites. The Public Policy center study found that, while blacks comprise nearly 6 percent of the city’s overall population, they only account for 1 percent of housing loans and are much more likely than their white counterparts to be denied loans (the study’s authors do concede, however, that without access to credit scores they “cannot conclusively assert that the higher denial rates … is due to race”).

Whatever the case may be, the rate of racial segregation Iowa City experiences is disturbingly high. However, Dr. Jerry Anthony, the director of the Housing and Land Use Policy Program at the University of Iowa and one of the prominent authors of the Public Policy Center’s study into fair housing in Iowa City, says remedies to the problem are no mystery.

“It is very rare in public policy to have a ‘silver bullet’ solution to a particular policy problem, but when it comes to a lack of fair housing, there is, and it’s called inclusionary zoning,” Anthony said.

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Inclusionary zoning is a policy wherein municipal governments require any new housing construction project to include a certain proportion of units, which can be affordable to low-income families. According to Dr. Anthony, the significant correlation between race and class in Iowa City would mean that spreading affordable housing throughout the city, the ultimate intended effect of inclusionary zoning, could slowly but surely desegregate Iowa City and more evenly distribute black and white families. Dr. Anthony cites communities such as Montgomery County, Maryland, the first municipality in the nation to adopt inclusionary zoning in 1974, as examples of how communities can reduce segregation through inclusionary zoning.

For all its merits though, the way inclusionary zoning has functioned in many American communities has been flawed. If the amount of units allotted for low-income individuals is too low, as has happened in New York City, its effects can be negligible. And if the zoning is not mandated across the entire municipality, only pockets of diversity will emerge rather than a citywide transformation of the demographic landscape. Even Montgomery County, Maryland, ground zero of the inclusionary zoning policy, still deals with very high levels of segregation in the school system despite 40 years of inclusionary zoning.

However, inclusionary zoning as a tool in a broader program to reduce racial and economic segregations (along with additional options such as universal rent control and integrated public housing) is promising. So why hasn’t the Iowa City government adopted it or other measures to alleviate segregation in the city? City Council member Kingsley Botchway says that the city government has been slow to take up the issue.

“There just isn’t really an urgency on the part of most of city government to try and solve this problem,” Botchway said.

Dr. Anthony agrees, stating, “If you were to take a poll of people in Iowa City, I believe the overwhelming majority of them would support inclusionary zoning. The only thing standing in the way of this is a lack of political will on the part of the city council and a lack of progressive leadership helping to push this policy forward.”

Botchway, who supports inclusionary zoning and says that it could do wonders to help create a less polarized, more integrated community, hopes that the upcoming city council elections this fall will spur a “community conversation” to help put pressure on the council to begin taking steps to desegregate Iowa City’s housing environment. Whether this comes to pass remains to be seen, and in the meantime, the various peoples of “The People’s Republic” remain divided and cut off from one another.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 174