By Mallory Hellman, Iowa City
I’ve lived in Iowa City for just over a decade. Like so many of us, I came here for grad school and never left. Also like many of us, I’ve spent these final gasps of pandemic-altered life privately harboring serious concern about what our beloved city will look like once we’re able to roam it freely again.
It’s time to make that concern public: our city’s small businesses are dying. And unless the State enacts a moratorium on commercial rent hikes and/or evictions, Iowa Citians are bound return to a downtown that’s unrecognizable.
Let me backtrack. I came here as a transplant from Brooklyn, New York in 2010. Googly-eyed at the dually fascinating prospects of studying with James Alan McPherson and living in an apartment larger than a utility closet, I sailed here on the implied promise of our city’s name-brand institutions. But those institutions are not why I stayed.
A coastal friend asked me recently why I’ve chosen to build a life here. The answer is best described anecdotally. In New York, you can slip into a crowded bar to sweat and overpay among the other commute-weary masses determined to hear the bestselling author at the mic. In Iowa City, thanks to Prairie Lights, you can ask that same writer to coffee.
Iowa City’s small businesses constitute the foundation of this town’s character. They clothe us, feed us, teach us, shape our culture. They donate their profits to local schools. Participate in the annual downtown block party. They employ us and our family members. In aggregate, they are the very fruits of the unflinching community-mindedness and radically creative entrepreneurship that make this town itself.
These same businesses are in grave and immediate danger of closure. Recently, the Press-Citizen published a list of more than 30 downtown Iowa City businesses whose doors closed in 2020. Several of these businesses, most notably The Mill, saw an outpouring of support and resuscitation attempts from community members of a rainbow of stripes. But ultimately, no citizens’ efforts could compete with the moneyed interest of property developers.
This is where the State comes in.
In 2020, when the certainty and longevity of the pandemic’s economic blow set in, both the CDC and the state of Iowa issued life-saving eviction moratoria for individuals; Iowa’s eviction moratorium has recently been extended to June 30, 2021. In plain terms, if you are an individual currently unable to afford your rent, your landlord cannot legally remove you from the property.
No such protections exist for small businesses. Neither state nor federal eviction moratoria apply to commercial property, and in the face of dramatic pandemic-era profit loss, small business owners — our neighbors, our friends, we — are left to negotiate rental terms with landlords.
Of course, under such vulnerable circumstances, our beloved businesses are flailing. Make no mistake that property management firms see this as an opportunity. Swooping in when tenant businesses are least poised to resist, they purchase buildings, impose ludicrous rent hikes (think $50/sq. ft.), and sell the space to the highest bidder.
No doubt, any commercial entity in a position to pay such elevated rent is likely a large corporation, headquartered elsewhere. This has been a problem since before the pandemic; consider the Target that now stands in the former home of several local businesses.
Commercial property owners wield an undue amount of power in the State House. But unless our representatives in Des Moines take heed of small businesses’ suffering and act, the corporate chain stores will become the new normal for our downtown.