Why are tenants in Johnson County the most cost-burdened in Iowa?

Rental woes in IC
Some argue that wages in the area haven’t kept up with cost of living. — photo by Adam Burke

For many in Iowa City, just making the rent is a struggle. Approximately 30 percent of the population in Iowa City was living below poverty level from 2008 to 2012, compared to Iowa’s average of 12 percent, according to City Data, a website that compiles census data by location. The 2010 census shows that about half of the city’s population lives in rental units and that rental units make up 45 percent of total housing units in the city, leaving most of the rental units occupied.

Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Mark Patton said the vacancy rate in Iowa City sits at half of one percent. In a normal, healthy market there is typically a five percent vacancy rate. What this means for Iowa City is that the supply of housing in the area is not keeping up with demand, so more families, students, professionals and seniors are shelling out more and more money for housing each month.


Percentage of renters identified as cost-burdened

Source: University of Iowa Public Policy Center. Data for 1990 and 2000 gathered from the U.S. Census. 2010 data is a five-year estimate via the American Community Survey.

Based on 2010 census data, 55.6 percent of renters in Johnson County are cost burdened according to an interactive map released by the Housing and Land Use Policy Program at the University of Iowa — the highest rate in all of Iowa. Cost burdened means that a household is spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Patton says that part of the problem is that wages in the area haven’t kept up with cost of living. He explained that many jobs in Iowa City are service-industry positions offering low wages. Those that can find higher-paying jobs must travel further, paying for gas, parking and insurance, leaving even less money for housing and other items such as food, education, child care, technology and transportation. Making sacrifices on these items has a significant effect on quality of life.

An even bigger concern is how much housing costs affect life chances, says Jerry Anthony, director of the UI’s Housing and Land Use Policy Program. Low-to-middle-income families have fewer housing options, which determines the neighborhoods they live in, the schools their children go to and even the amount of fresh food available to them. The 2011 Iowa Policy Project Cost of Living Report explains that one in five working families in Iowa have incomes that cannot meet their basic needs. This can lead to a cycle of poverty that persists across generations.

Housing costs don’t just affect individuals and families; they affect the economy on a broader scale as well. Anthony says that companies looking to build in an area often overlook places with a lack of affordable housing, stunting economic growth in the area. By contrast, in cities where housing costs are lower, employers are able to provide a much higher quality of life despite paying comparable wages.

Housing Choice Voucher (HCV), Section Eight and other federal public housing programs provide assistance based on eligibility requirements, though some argue that these programs are not as effective as they could be. Landlords are not required to accept Section Eight, and many do not. Vouchers are available to most of those who want them, but there is a lack of housing that accepts them. Those who qualify may also be placed on a waiting list before they’re able to receive assistance.

While it’s important to increase housing that accepts vouchers, it’s equally important to maintain variety in the types of homes and locations available, said Mary Ann Davis, Executive Director of The Housing Fellowship — a nonprofit developer that takes existing properties and rehabilitates them for low-to-middle-income families. Scattering the housing ensures there is not a high concentration of low-income families in one area. It also ensures that renters have a choice of neighborhoods and school districts and can find something that they like and that fits their needs. When families can afford their home, they tend to stay there longer, creating stability in both the family and in the community.

The issue of affordable housing has thrown a spotlight on The Chauncey building — which will hold both commecial spaces for area businesses and luxury housing units. The city plans to pay $1 million to set aside five units of affordable housing in the complex (the remaining units will be luxury condos and apartments).

Lawyer Rockne Cole, organizer of an opposition group called the Coalition Against the Shadow (referencing the shadow the proposed 15-story building would cast), thinks the city can get more space for less money. In fact, the Downtown and Riverfront Crossings Master Plan details that most of the existing (and planned) housing for the district is Higher-Quality High-Amenity (HQHA) housing. The report details that HQHA rent costs are often 40 percent higher than average area costs.

With over half of Iowa City’s renters already spending a third of their monthly income on rent, and 30 percent of the total population living below poverty levels, some area organizations are working to alleviate this problem


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Nonprofits like The Housing Fellowship and Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity are working to provide housing for families, but are limited by fundraising and grants available to them. Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity builds homes and sells them to families for no profit and charges them no interest on the loans, keeping the houses affordable.However they are only able to build five or six homes per year.

Cole thinks Iowa City needs to come up with creative solutions to lower rent costs. Tiny houses — compact, efficient housing that is typically less than 500 square feet — could provide a solution for students looking for small, affordable housing, and units only cost between $15,000 and $20,000 to build.

Anthony suggests flexible zoning as a viable solution to lower area rent costs. One option would require developers to dedicate a percentage of units for low- and middle-income families. Anthony says this solution would not require a lot of government cash, just political willpower. While there might not be one solution for creating more affordable housing in the area, it is clear that the issue needs to be addressed by community members as well as city government.

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