By Aradia Wyndham, Iowa City
Getting my apartment at Augusta Place was like winning the lottery, literally. I won my apartment in a lottery of low-income units in this building due to medical disability. While I considered this an amazing opportunity for me to live in a more accessible new home, the most visible of my neighbors show open contempt for our home and for everyone who lives and works here by treating this place like a combination bar, Dumpster and toilet.
When I moved in, there were house parties four or more nights a week on average with 110+ decibel music, partiers throwing objects and urinating off of balconies onto vehicles and even people below, while their half-empty bottles (or broken glass), cans and takeout containers collected in the corners of the mail room, halls and elevators. My amazing opportunity has become a waking nightmare.
I am hardly alone in that nightmare. Many other tenants, passersby and maintenance staff have made complaints to management and to the police. The building owners (Allen Homes) and the management company (RentalsIC) are well aware of what was going on here, too, but claimed that the only one tenants listened to were the police. They have received two “disorderly house” citations already, a third in a 24-month period will result in reduced rental permits, meaning that they will be forced to evict problem tenants. But if the rental tours are any indication (assuring prospective tenants that the beer pong tables were staying), evicted tenants will simply be replaced with more problem tenants for everyone else to deal with.
The Housing Authority owns my apartment, one of six low-income units in the building. During the 16 months I waited to move in, Augusta Place was being advertised as a downtown location for young professionals and students who wanted more space and quiet than could be had in the dorms. I was the first, and for many months the only, of the Housing Authority’s tenants to move in. Currently four of the low-income units are not rented out primarily due to prospective tenants having learned (from my experience) that “students live here.” What a terrifying specter students must be that even housing insecure people will refuse newly built, well-equipped apartments because of them.
Many people, both well-meaning and not, have suggested that this is “just how students are” and it will never get better. Steve Rackis from the Housing Authority described my building as a private “dorm without supervision.” Others have suggested that people should know better than to live “near campus” if they don’t want to live near students. Two police officers, one who admitted that he’d lose his mind if he had to live here, also encouraged me to move…
But to where? In a small city where “near campus” is the entire city and even parts of neighboring towns, where is it that people who want to avoid the risk of students will be safe renting? Is it right for off-campus students to be segregated when that segregation results in everyone else in the community being pushed away from downtown, away from local businesses, cultural events, and the university and hospital where so many in our community work? The downtown area should be for everyone who calls Iowa City home. If students are ready to live off-campus then they should be ready to be treated the same as any other renter and integrate into our community.
Since management has received citations, students known for being out of control have shown they are capable of behaving in line with local ordinances. This didn’t happen until management set clear and consistently enforced standards for them, though, and it seems like management will only respond to citations from the city. The University may similarly be in a position to make a difference, and they already have rules against students violating local ordinances, see the Code of Student Life (E.2 under “Criminal Conduct”) but it doesn’t seem well enforced, if at all. Students may be inexperienced renters but the purpose of being a student is to learn. During their time here, learning how to be a good neighbor and responsible tenant is well within any student’s capabilities. One of my neighbors, a student at the U of I, does not consider off-campus Iowa City to be “the real world,” which is a terrible sign about the quality of their education and their lack of respect for the home of their alma mater. At multiple levels, our community needs to stop normalizing and enabling the destructive behavior of people simply because they’re (yes, white) students that can afford high rents.
Unlike what is seen at the house parties in Augusta Place, the University of Iowa’s student body is diverse: there are students of all ages, familial situations, employment, SES, cultures, etc. I was a student here and have lived among students for nearly 20 years, and most students come to the University of Iowa to get an education, not because it is listed as a top party school. Yes, a small but affluent portion of the student body is here exclusively to stan college football, binge drink and spread COVID-19 with impunity, and feel entitled to so. However, many students want to study and deserve safe, clean and stable housing. When “student” becomes synonymous with out-of-control behavior it impedes students’ ability to access quality rentals because landlords who don’t operate unsupervised private dorms don’t want to rent to “students.” The Housing Authority, also buying into the party student stereotype, have said they are going to target low-income students for the unrented units at Augusta Place — students who are already at a disadvantage for completing their college education without having neighbors like mine.
Not only should good tenants and respectful neighbors not have to move due to the malfeasance of others, but I cannot move out unless I find another needle-in-a-haystack of rent and disability-accessible housing covered by HUD programs. Although the Housing Authority has recently offered to cover my moving expenses if I choose to move, that doesn’t make up for the disruption to my life and impact on my mental and physical health. More importantly, it solves nothing about the root problem. What about the other low-income renters in this building or in others like it? Will they be provided with moving stipends if their situation becomes untenable? Will any measures be taken to avoid this repeating more broadly in the first place? If not, then this program is less a community-integrated low-income housing program than it is a taxpayer-funded hostage situation.
The Housing Authority has assured me that the city is doing everything they can “within the current legal code” to deal with the situation at Augusta Place Apartments — but that is clearly not enough if the best option is moving out. Low-income renters are a vulnerable population and if they are going to be offered apartments in these private student-focused developments, at minimum there needs to be additional protection for them and higher standards (and more severe consequences for not meeting them) for the tenants, management and owners of the buildings they are located in.