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


  1. As usual – the liberal elites in The People’s Republic say one thing and do another. Do as I say and not as I do! And think as I tell you!

  2. I’m a latino person and get plenty of lots of discrimination sent my way. But I would not rent to black either. A lot of my neighbors are black and they do not respect most basic rules, like taking things (like my kids bikes) without asking, like steeling. One time I approached a neighbor a few houses away saying that that bike that his kid was riding was taken from my house. The large man said in a very angry way that somebody gave it to his kid and that now it was his kid’s bike. I did not want to call the police because I do not want anyone taking revenge on my kids, my family or my house. I live in a Habitat house near Lakeside apartments and as soon as I have lived in the house long enough to be able to sell it according to the Habitat rules (4 more years) I will sell it as cheap as I need to and move into a trailer court or move to West Liberty. I drove a taxi in the winter and never had to deal with so many drunk black people who did not want to pay the entire fair. The black women were always nice and respectful. Most mexicans like me are poor too and we work hard, and we do not get much educated but we do not steel from people and we help each other out as neighbors. There is a lot of drugs in my neighborhood. Many blacks are nice too and they sell me their food stamps for half the price so I can buy twice as much food at Aldis for the same amount of mony.

    1. If I were an apartment building owner or if I was to rent a room in my house out I would do a background check and require the applicant to take a drug test.(which you can get at Wal Mart for $15) By requiring the applicant pay an application fee you could make back the money spent on the drug test. I also would refuse to rent to anyone who didn’t have a job or who had Section 8.

      I don’t want to deal with drug addicts nor with bums who don’t want a job or who don’t want to pay there own way and want to increase my taxes to pay their bills. Such people are scum and usually they will pull jerry springer shenanigans. Id rather avoid such people entirely.

      I believe you are saying in this article is that refusal to rent to bums who want to steal from and or leech off other people is racial discrimination. It is not racist to be anti section 8 or anti-leech. To say it is racist is to imply that section 8 has something to do with race which is in and of itself racist and therefor hypocritical.

    2. You shouldn’t buy those food stamps and should report the people you know are selling them. If they can afford to sell you the food stamps they don’t need them in the first place and they may even be buying drugs with that money.

      As far as the bike thing you could out a decoy bike on your property, one that’s not screwed together properly that will come undone if someone rides it for a half hour or so and letting your kids know the bike isn’t safe. Then put up no trespassing signs on your property. Its not your fault if some thieving piece of filth steals it.

      You should have called the police though. What happens the next time that scumbag steals from someone? They do it because they know people are afraid of reprisals.

      I have a carry permit and sleep next to an AR-15. If someone tries a reprisal Ill defend myselff, crash their funeral to tell everyone what a scumbag they are, and then be at total piece and sleep like a baby.

  3. @Marco- for you to be someone of a different race, you sure are very forward with being stereotypical. Clearly you are not very knowledgeable of the Iowa City area. Everyone knows that the area you are referencing is a known drug area. This is why Habitat builds in that area, to try to make it a better place, more family oriented. However, it’s still a lower income, predominantly black or Hispanic race area. I have a husband that is black, my children are mixed, but to think that “all black people are the same” is ridiculous and what you were basically implying. It is not just black people that steal or sell drugs, or do drugs. This story about your child’s bike could have happened with the father being any race, Latino, Hispanic, white, blue, orange…it doesn’t matter the color or nationality, race, none of that, there are just some really bad people out there. You just so happened to come across one that was black. Until people stop thinking so closed minded as you do, things will never change. I hope that for your children’s sake, you are not teaching them that all black people are thieves and bad people, parents are usually at fault for our children thinking like that because you teach them these things. There are still good people out there, of all colors.

  4. i think trying to determine whether class or race is the critical criteria for the discrimination cited is difficult. although the article does cite that 40% of blacks vs. 16% of whites live at or below the poverty line i did not see any statistic that cited the percentage of black families receiving section 8 rental assistance. were one to presume that that 40% of black families under the poverty line somewhat equates to a similar percentage receiving section 8 when representing only 6% of the population, then it is rational to also presume, that in numerous cases, that race and not just class alone is a component of the calculus. i am would be immensely curios to hear from some of those landlords who denied accepting section 8 their reasons for doing so. possibly a number of them did so previously but due to bad experiences elected to no longer do so. hence, they discriminate based on that experience. were i landlord and had rented a house to, say, 4 white male undergraduates and they trashed the place way beyond what the security deposit would cover, then it is completely understandable that i would never again rent to that same demographic. discrimination based on generalization garnered from experience, certainly. bigotry, no.

    on a very more sensitive note, i know many white folks, who have lived here a long time, who express grave concerns (and usually privately/quietly) about the large increase of poor black families moving to ic from chicago and other urban areas resulting in an increase in crime, social assistance, emergency room visits, etc. myths abound, such as presumably some years ago 2 city councilors visited chicago social service networks and invited them to send their poor black families to iowa city where better social services were abundant and available ( hence my using the term “myths” – true or not?) and that there were billboards along chicago freeways extolling the virtues for the poor in chicago to relocate to ic. i’ve no clue whether or not these “myths” are true or not but i guarantee that many believe them as true. i so wish some news organization would take up the mantle and thoroughly investigate – but then, maybe way too dicey. i’m a white guy (in case that need be a factor in one’s assessing my comments) and i must add this – if i lived, with my children, in an urban neighborhood rife with crime and gangs, crappy schools, no decent grocery stores with an abundance of healthy foods, i’d be looking for the first ticket out to a better place to raise my children, a place where they could get a good education, not living in constant fear of danger, grocery stores stocking more than chips, soft drinks and candy, etc. and to those black families who have relocated here i say this – white folks are not [REDACTED BY MODERATORS], we are not ice people, we do not care only for those who look like us – for the most part, we stop at stop signs, we want to left alone to our pursuits within the realm of law, we want the neighbor next door to roll up his loud party at midnight, we want the drunk college student to not be drunk and peeing in our yard, we want to take a nighttime walk in our neighborhood and not be fearful – how frigging (i use the real word, not “fricking”!) quaint. rant over. happy trails to all.
    love, peace and happiness (chambers brothers’ song – it’s a good one), py

  5. for staci moss,
    from your experience, is there a general template for what black parents tell their children about white folks or is it all over the place? stereotypical for the most part? i’ve white friends who listen to rush limbaugh on a regular basis and, frankly (i listen to his diatribes about once a year) i am convinced that he has cowshit for entree, bile for dessert and venom over ice for drink. funny, what friends do to be “informed”.
    as far as upbraiding marco for being “stereotypical” i believe that to be unfair – she had a real life experience and life experiences is what we all use to inform us of the present and future. few years ago, a young white woman was sitting in her car on the s.e. part of town and a black man came up to her car and asked her for the time or something – next thing she knows a gun is in her face and he robs her and flees. whatever her attitudes towards black males prior to that event may have been, i am sure they were not “stereotyped”. but afterwards, my guess is that young woman will ever regard black males approaching her car with a simple request with a degree of fear – from previous experience. marco had an experience and from that she will make future decisions. you’ve no ground to discount her experience (you fail to even empathize). who is being stereotypical?

  6. This isn’t news. Johnson county has the 2nd highest rate of racial disparity in arrests and Iowa is ranked worst in the nation. Iowa nice on the outside, concealing racism on the inside.

  7. Landlords don’t have to do section 8 housing and I wouldn’t either if I were a landlord. It’s well known what comes with section 8. I don’t give a s$&? what color skin you have. For anyone to say otherwise is shortsighted. Now if you don’t want to live below the poverty line/in bad neighborhoods than do what everyone else does, WORK HARD. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I got loans to go to college in order to make myself into something. No one said I had to, I could have just said screw it and got assistance but that isn’t how I wanted to live. I would never get anywhere blaming a certain group for all my problems. The problems lie within those who don’t get jobs, and just want to live off the government. I get it, some people fall on hard times and need some help every once in a while and that’s why these programs exist. But people are clueless if they think that there is rampant abuse of the system going on. Just go on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of videos of people boasting about ripping off the system. Now go listen to the Milwaukee Policeman who just said a bunch of stuff that the black community needs to hear. It’s time to take accountability. You don’t hear any other denomination of race making these claims, it’s time people. It’s time to move into the era of progress. An era where people will work to provide for their families, not have families to get more government money. It’s time to quit blaming policeman for targeting black youth. The statistics show that black youth targets black youth. No other race has near as bad of an issue with this problem. We need some better parenting out there. I’ve seen too many parents who are in on their child’s illegal hustles, I never say anything because it’s their life but it’s just time to quit all that stuff. Let’s have some accountability, Can we? I’m tired of being a white person who keeps getting told it’s my fault that black people aren’t succeeding and that I don’t understand because of my white privilege. Someone let me know when this privilege will pay the bills and make life easier, that would be great. I have done nothing to make your life harder to live. It all starts with yourself. What have you done today to improve your life and those around you? Answer that question before you blame some phantom white person.

  8. In an unsurprising turn of events, the comments on an article about racism have proven that racism is alive and well and justified the article itself.

  9. Why do blacks, or anyone for that matter, want to live where they aren’t wanted? This has never made any sense to me. Nobody is forcing these people to move to Iowa City. Many of them are fleeing Chicago. Why not stay home and fix your home community?

    1. Hi Rene, I hate to say this, but we’ve decided that people like you aren’t wanted in our community. Could you please grab your stuff and go someplace else? I know you’d really like to live here, and I heard you got a great job, but…and there’s no easy way to say this…we just don’t want you here. After all, why would you stay if you’re not wanted? Doesn’t make any sense, right?


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