Your Town Now: How the 2013 Citizen Survey got it wrong

downtown - alan light
“The Commission recommends the Council not use [the survey] at all,” said The Iowa City Human Rights Commission. — photo by Alan Light

Last August, our city conducted a staff-initiated survey of a select group of Iowa Citians: 95 percent were white, 93 percent homeowners and 74 percent had a household income of $50,000 to $150,000 or more. The purpose of the so-called Citizen Survey was to assess the general level of community satisfaction regarding various city services and undertakings. Despite the survey’s intended purpose to serve as one part of long-term strategic planning, elected representatives made no effort to assert any authority over the survey. All control was ceded to city staff, which selected the questions to be asked and provided the appropriate letterhead and signatures for mailing. The survey cost taxpayers $12,000.

The National City Survey (NCS), who was hired by Iowa City to conduct the Citizen Survey, is a collaborative effort between the National Research Center, Inc. and the International City/County Management Association. Iowa City staff provided NCS a list of 19,225 residential utility customers after eliminating those living in UI dorms and fraternities, Bon Aire Mobile Home Court, Hilltop Mobile Home Court, Forest View Mobile Home Court, the large apartment buildings around Lakeside and Highway 6 and in the vicinity of Benton and Melrose, and other enclaves of lower income addresses.

Of the 504 respondents, two percent considered themselves to be Spanish, Hispanic or Latino and one percent defined themselves as Black or African American. When you contrast these figures against the 2010/12 U.S. Census Bureau Quick Facts for Iowa City, you find that white, higher-income homeowners were heavily overrepresented in the 2013 City Survey, and that minority, lower-income and student renting populations were greatly underrepresented. It is not surprising that the Iowa City Human Rights Commission made the following recommendation to the city council at its Nov. 19, 2013 meeting:

The Iowa City Human Rights Commission finds the City of Iowa City Citizen’s Survey 2013 to be of questionable validity and in need of inclusion of all community constituents. The Commission recommends the Council not use it at all. If used, it should not be used as the sole input for guiding strategic planning. The Commission encourages the Council to rely upon other types of documents that members of the community have brought forth such as the Ad Hoc Diversity Recommendations, the Racial Equity in Iowa City and Johnson County Report of the Iowa City Coalition for Racial Justice and the Immigrant Voices Project Materials.

Given the city’s control of the survey recipients, one could surmise that city staff had an institutionalized bias against conducting a survey that might produce results that could lead to discussions about and possible solutions to race relations, law enforcement practices and affordable housing (all problematic issues facing Iowa City and about which city leaders and staff speak only in soothing murmurs). Our local media superficially reported the survey results along the lines that “Iowa City residents are generally pleased with city services.” However, when the tabulated responses to the survey are examined closely, not all is well in Tooterville and the city council might want to consider some of the following as it makes its plans for the future of our town.

Putting aside the obvious objections regarding methodology and discriminatory bias, let’s examine what the 504 white, relatively well-to-do, home-owning respondents thought about some of the issues confronting our community: 77 percent felt that the police department would treat them with respect and fairness, an obvious response from those who seldom have interactions with the police (90 percent, including all household members, were not victims of any crime). Eighty-four percent felt that Iowa City is a diverse and inclusive community, but only 27 percent sought out information about diversity-related issues with the city, and 74 percent knew little about the Citizens Police Review Board (probably because they don’t have a reason to file a complaint with the CPRB and don’t know anyone who has).

Additionally, 63 percent said the availability of affordable housing was fair to poor; 63 percent felt that street repair was ‘fair’ or ‘poor’; 59 percent thought cable services were ‘fair’ or ‘poor’; 59 percent rated land use, planning and zoning, as ‘fair’ to ‘poor’; and 55 percent of this select group of survey recipients felt that the overall direction of the city was ‘fair’ to ‘poor.’ If this group of residents has a high degree of dissatisfaction with Iowa City, imagine what the results would have been if it had included more people with incomes below $50,000, who weren’t white and didn’t own a house.

City staff, who greatly influence development, are no doubt pleased that 62 percent of respondents ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agree with the expanded use of economic development incentives to broaden the tax base, but what does the city mean by “economic development incentives?” If that phrase meant Tax Incremental Financing (TIF), why not be honest and just say so? TIFs have become much less popular locally because of the increasingly well-documented negative side effects they have; even though many people would have a hard time defining exactly how they work, they are coming to understand how TIF negatively affects tax revenues while subsidizing private developers with public funds.

It’s also quite likely that had the survey been more inclusive regarding income, race and property, such survey responders would likely favor the diversion of tax dollars not to more business development, but to affordable housing. Despite the sample bias in favor of upper income respondents, 57 percent said affordable housing was important to them. A survey dedicated entirely to the issues of housing in Iowa City—availability, cost, adequacy of inspection, effect of zoning decisions, public/university funding, landlord-tenant ordinance etc.—would be justifiable.

In fact, a survey addressing fair housing was recently undertaken. On Jan. 6, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center (UIPPC) submitted a report of a fair housing study that was commissioned by the city for $11,664. In sum, the UIPPC report concluded that fair housing is not accessible to all Iowa Citians. Even though this survey’s methodology appears more inclusive, and its results have the ring of truth, the city is refusing to finish paying for the UIPPC survey (a more civilized response than “shooting the messenger”). In contrast to the UIPPC survey, the NCS Citizen Survey ignores major constituencies within Iowa City and should be acknowledged as a waste of time and money, relegated to the dustbin of history and not repeated.

Carol deProsse and Caroline Dieterle—85+ collective years of trying to shake up the system; we want to thank Bob Thompson for his research that led to the writing of this article.

Note of Interest

Since our article on the Emerald Ash Borer appeared last month, the beetle has been found in Union County in southwestern Iowa. Presently there is a 25-county area under quarantine to try to slow the beetle’s rapid advancement. Residents should not take firewood out of the quarantined area, nor should they bring in firewood from areas outside the quarantine area. A Jan. 12 Press Citizen article about the beetle’s looming presence and devastation indicates that  the City is ill prepared to deal with what lies ahead

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