By Adam Burke and Caleb Rainey
About two months ago, Mankato, Minnesota-based developers College Fund Properties took over the rental complex known as Rose Oaks, formerly Lakeside Point and Dolphin Lake. The new owners have been embroiled in a rental shakeup since.
Many renters left immediately after receiving a letter in late March that read, “If you are willing to move out now, you will not be penalized for breaking your lease … we are encouraging you to move as soon as possible.”
A few days later, a second letter quickened the push for an exodus of Rose Oaks tenants with an offer of $500 plus a full security deposit return, even for apartments left unclean. Shelter House has since set up an office at Rose Oaks to assist residents. They are offering financial help with security deposits, as well as locating new places to live.
At a press conference on Apr. 19, Pastor Anthony Smith of New Creations International Church said that members of his congregation had moved to the Quad Cities to live with family.
“They immediately vacated … They moved out of town before the community got involved,” he said.
Some tenants are still weighing their options or haven’t found a place to live — but those residents with existing leases have now been given until Aug. 1 to leave. The extension came after activists in the Iowa City community, largely through the efforts of the Iowa Black Liberation Action Collective (BLAC), met and organized protest and opposition to the non-renewal of leases, including a loud demand for help at the Apr. 5 city council meeting.
In council chambers, demonstrators shouted their demand for answers while waving signs that read: “Stop the Gentrification!” and “Fact: These evictions are ILLEGAL. Stop the construction!”
A sign held by Mamano Kabahandelua read, in French, “We are refugees, this reminds us of home.”
Mazahir Sailh, director of the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ), asked the council to deny the permit for Rose Oaks’ renovation and give more time to the residents.
Following lengthy testimony from many residents and neighbors, acting city manager Geoff Fruin explained the renovation process and schedule for the developer. The apartments will be fully gutted and rebuilt, keeping only the “building envelope.” He said College Fund Properties planned a late 2017 finish date for the project.
Venson S. Curington II is an organizer and the executive director of Iowa BLAC. The group brought dozens of protesters to the council meeting. At the end of the meeting, he demanded answers from the city council.
At the Apr. 5 meeting, mayor Jim Throgmorton directed the city manager to contact the property owner, College Fund Properties, and have them “connect with the individual renters who remain at Rose Oaks.”
In the weeks following the city council meeting, Rose Oaks residents have been filled with consternation. Kossigan Amouzou, known as Carlos, has lived in Rose Oaks for four years. His lease ends Sep. 1.
“I plan to move out, but some places denied my application. I don’t know how to get a new place … Next year my son and wife will be coming here. We’ll have to be homeless,” he said, adding, “I don’t feel good at all. I’m on medication too, because I had a mental health problem before this happened, so I feel really bad.”
Another resident, Ester Maisonet, originally from Puerto Rico, has lived in Rose Oaks with her boyfriend and two children for a year. She is moving out.
“I was desperate because I didn’t have the money to rent a place and I didn’t have any place to move,” she said.
The process of moving forced Maisonet to seek help: “I had to ask my brother-in-law for money … we had to get loans.”
“We are all the same. We are all human … It’s not even fair, what they did,” she said.
The Iowa City Council came up with $15,000 for Shelter House, to assist with relocations. For its part, College Fund Properties tried to give $15,000 to CWJ, but their members refused and asked to that the funds be given directly to the residents. Eventually, the developers donated $30,000 to Shelter House for relocation services.
Unfortunately, many families left when they thought they had a month or less to move. By the end of April, out of Rose Oaks’ 400 units, only 125 rentals were filled.
At a joint cities meeting on Apr. 25, in Harvat Hall — with representatives from Tiffin, North Liberty, Coralville and county supervisors in attendance — Fruin reported to the council that of the 125 remaining, some 50 renters were ready to sign agreements to end leases and receive the $500 for relocation assistance.
Residents have described the emptying apartment complex as “scary,” “empty” and a “ghost town.” Four buildings plus the clubhouse will be demolished, and renovations on the 16 remaining apartment buildings in the complex have already begun.
Newly elected City Councilor Rockne Cole said he wants “to push a policy change so that it doesn’t happen again.”
“We need to have regulatory tools, especially where it involves [the] most vulnerable residents in the community,” he said. But, “We don’t have the regulatory mechanisms” in city code to address tenants’ concerns in the Rose Oaks renovations and upgrades or future proposals from developers.
“When a developer gets a permit, you have to have a plan for stormwater runoff and a bunch of other physical things,” he said, ”but it doesn’t measure the human impact.”
Cole called the Rose Oaks situation “a major crisis in the community.”
Curington called it something else.
“This is classic gentrification. What we are trying to do with residents is say that this situation is not inevitable, and it is not something that is okay, and it is something that we can fight. We are trying to build a long-term, deep relationship with anybody who sees the world in the way we see it. We are not concerned about the short-term, immediate, band-aid fixes. We’re calling for the city council to live up to the good progressive name that is Iowa City and the good progressive county that is Johnson County, and to say gentrification is not going to happen in this city,” he said in late April.
County supervisor Lisa Green-Douglas said one solution could come from the biggest employer in the area. The University of Iowa, she said, puts “stress on the housing market in Johnson County.” She thinks the University “should provide sufficient housing to accommodate students in their first and second years of college.”
She and supervisor Rod Sullivan said inclusionary zoning should be required for all new housing projects.
“Let the people who are benefitting from development pay more of the cost. I would like to see every city in Johnson County adopt an inclusionary zoning policy,” Sullivan said.
“Affordable housing is a critical human need.”
Sally Scott is the chair of the Johnson County Affordable Homes Coalition (JCAHC). She said her group was caught off-guard by the Rose Oaks events.
“We were all really taken by surprise … the city was too,” she said.
JCAHC will present some policy ideas for the council’s June 21 work session, where the city council will present their preliminary Affordable Housing Action Plan, part of the strategic plan they approved in March.
“We’re just starting to dig into what those policies could be and to come up with realistic options; it’s going to take a few weeks,” Scott said. “Whatever we come up with, we have to work very hard to prevent this scenario from happening again. It’s just been too traumatic for the tenants,” she said.
Jason T. Lewis is running for county supervisor; the primary is June 7. He wants to draft a Housing Bill of Rights for tenants to make sure they’re not being displaced without due course.
“If property owners aren’t led by their values to provide affordable options for residents, then we need leadership from every level of local government to require that those units are available,” he said. “This crisis is one of the dangerous side effects of living in a thriving community … [but] We can’t allow those with the most need to become victims of our success.”
Adam Burke is an Iowa City renter. Caleb Rainey is a third-year student at the University of Iowa pursuing an English major with a specialty in creative writing. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 198.