Over a hundred people mill around trying to find a seat in a government room meant to seat only a few dozen. A man with glasses and a mustache waves a flimsy paper sign proclaiming: “WE WANT IOWA CITY TO BE AFFORDABLE.”
To his left, another man holds a sign reading: “STOP ILLEGAL EVICTIONS! (peace sign)”
A chant breaks out: “WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“ANSWERS!” the crowd responds.
“WHEN DO WE WANT THEM?”
The big agenda item for this City Council is whether or not to allow an app-based transportation company into town, not the issue of affordable housing for the poor. The crowd has their own agenda.
A community organizer, Venton Curington II, jumps toward the podium.
“All you part of the ‘Core Four,’” shouts Curington to the recently elected council members: “It’s your opportunity to be the progressives that you said you were supposed to be.”
The crowd starts again, “WHAT DO WE WANT?”
The “Core Four” has a promise to keep
The “Core Four” that Curington so admonished is a group of four Iowa City Council members who ran, and won, together in the 2015 elections on a platform of shared ideas and promises. The group is comprised of John Thomas, Rockne Cole, Pauline Taylor and Mayor Jim Throgmorton.
One of their platforms was to put less emphasis on large economic projects that used taxpayers’ money (especially through tax increment financing, or TIF) on projects such as downtown high rises.
Instead, the group’s main focus was creating a council that was more inclusive, and open to more voices, according to council member Rockne Cole.
“I think the main thing was that we shared similar values and we knew that the council had to go in a different direction,” said Cole. “We felt there were some substantial parts of the community that had been totally left out of the decision making process. I think our community of color feels they didn’t really have access, or that their voices were really heard.”
Yet many of those present at the Apr. 5 meeting felt that there was little interest in shared decision making or listening to new voices.
The protestors immediate concern was the eviction of residents from the Rose Oak apartments, 2401 US-6. While residents described the apartments as providing poor living conditions, many said it was the only place they had. The eviction notices could leave many families on the street, in a city that already has few options for affordable housing, said Adetayo O-Ajose, a 19-year-old senior at the University of Iowa.
“Imagine being in their shoes. Being taken from a third world country. My parents are Nigerian immigrants. Try coming to America all on your own with no connections. Being found really shoddy housing but you’re willing to live with it, and then being found you’re being evicted from this really shoddy housing, and being told you just have a couple of weeks,” said O-Ajose. “That’s not security. That’s not the security we placed in your hands when we voted for you”
While O-Ajose understood the demands were sudden, as she put it: “If they don’t get answers now, then they’re going to be living on the streets with five kids. That shouldn’t even be legal. That shouldn’t even be an option.”
The evictions are due to the planned demolition and renovation of the property by the developer College Fund Properties II, said Thomas. The same property was formerly known as Dolphin Lake Point Enclave.
The issue somewhat blindsided the City Council, claimed Cole. Rose Oaks residents at the meeting demanded that the council delay the building permit to give more time for residents to make arrangements, but the council does not have much power to actually delay the permit, according Thomas.
“In some ways it’s similar to a natural disaster,” said Thomas. “The scale of it is such that the way we address it needs to address the whole community, in addition to what the city is doing.”
Officials with the city said the permit process is an administrative review designated by the city itself that the council has little power to change. Despite calls from citizens, Thomas said the council does not have the legal authority to ask Interim City Manager Geoff Fruin to simply delay the permit.
The legal framework is really between tenant and landlord, he added.
“Obviously these guys are upset and say they’re not getting answers. But this a private developer, there’s not a whole lot the council can do,” said Thomas. “The question of stopping the permit is not the approach the city will be taking, but rather smoothing out the transition.”
While residents of Rose Oaks disagree with that verdict, even if the council could delay the permit, that would not prevent the developers from making renovations or other preparations for the project, which would still mean residents could continue to be evicted.
So what can the City Council do?
For starters, Thomas said they have been talking with the developers, and he promised that all families with school age children will be able to stay through the school semester.
The Council also authorized $15,000 to be given to Shelter House Inc., but whether that’s for an expected increased influx of residents or to be used for rapid relocation services council members could not say.
“It doesn’t go far enough, but it will be helpful,” said Taylor.
Councilors also said that Reggie Reed, College Fund’s director of operations, had told them the company will be meeting with residents to discuss the possibility of extensions. Taylor said Reed has said he’d be meeting with each resident to see what their needs are. How many he’ll allow to stay, though, is unknown.
“That’s my question,” Taylor said. “That’s what I want to know.”
Beyond this the council has said it will also be working with local non-profits and other volunteers to smooth the transition.
Thomas has said there are plans to work with groups such as United Way to help find affordable housing, and he’d like to see a program created where members of the community can make private donations for the cause.
But even in the best case scenario, such efforts can have their drawbacks, said Taylor.
Finding affordable housing is tough enough, but “many of these folks work in the industrial field, and they walk to work. To be relocated to North Liberty or Coralville is not an option for them,” said Taylor.
Considering it’s a private matter between landlord and tenants, it seems there’s a definite limit to what the council can do. But given that inclusiveness is a central tenant of what the four councilors ran on, they don’t plan on giving up soon, said Cole.
“I want to make sure that we are exhausting all available means under our control to address this issue,” he said. “I think this is an unusual issue, and so I think this is going to be a real measuring stick.”
Fixing the problem for the future
While the residents of Rose Oaks may not be able to get a solution from the council in time to stop the evictions, council members do say they have plans to increase the amount of affordable housing in Iowa City over the long term.
As part of an agreement with a development firm that plans on constructing a tower structure at the Linn/Court site, the firm CA Ventures will be giving Iowa City $1,000,000, said Thomas. This money, he said, is earmarked for creating more affordable housing in Iowa City.
While this may not be a solution, it could be a step in the right direction for the area, which has the least amount of affordable housing in the state, according to the Johnson County Affordable Homes Coalition.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is also willing to provide up to $600,000 to help with affordable housing, said Thomas. How exactly the money will be used from either source is still unknown, though, he said.
Another long term solution some of the council members have proposed is keeping their campaign promise of not using tax increment financing for high rise proposals, and instead perhaps putting that money towards things like affordable housing, Thomas added.
This is one of the platforms all four candidates have run on. While Throgmorton and the other three council members have emphasized their group was a “campaign” group and that they are now working together on a seven member council, their election has definitely had an effect on council business.
The most recent example may be the disapproval vote on “The Lens,” an art project in the Black Hawk Mini Park in the pedestrian mall that would have cost the city $50,000 in consulting fees.
“We did not feel like that was a wise use of public funds, particularly when we have so many other competing demands for those funds,” said Cole, who pointed to the case as one of the first early markers of how this council differs from the previous.
Critics have said that without such focus on large economic projects, the city risks not growing its tax base.
“They have a very different priority than prior councils,” said Regina Bailey, who served on the Iowa City City Council from 2004 to 2011. “Without that focus your tax base doesn’t necessarily grow, and without growth, with our current laws, it can be challenging to provide the kind of services Iowa City has come to expect.”
Cole agreed that this council was indeed very different and said, “That’s the view that social justice means spending money, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Obviously that’s a component of it. But we absolutely get the question of economic growth.”
But can this new, “different” council balance the needs of economic growth with the needs of the residents of Rose Oaks and those like them in terms of affordable housing?
It may be too early to tell, but, as Cole put it, this situation is a measuring stick for the new council — and it’s not likely to be the last.