Zoning Out: One Resident’s Take on Crime, Capital & On-Campus Housing


For Nancy Carlson, off-campus housing is just as bad for students as it is for Iowa City. Photo by Jon Winet.

In 1965, Nancy Carlson came to Iowa City as a student and never left. At that time, about 40 percent of UI students lived in on-campus housing. As an Illinois transplant and farm girl, Carlson remembers the vibrancy of downtown neighborhoods in the 1970s, recalling the single-family homes lining South Johnson and Van Buren Streets. But when the last UI dormitory was built in 1968 (Slater Hall), little did Carlson know that she was witness to the end of an era.

Up-Zoning and the Student Ghetto

It was the 1960s and Iowa City had begun “up-zoning”—a controversial planning practice in which zoning laws are changed to allow for greater density or commercial development. The University’s stopped building student housing and the City of Iowa City changed its zoning laws, transforming the downtown neighborhood into what today is called the Student Ghetto.

Carlson recalls resident outrage as apartment complexes replaced the unique architecture of residential neighborhoods with cookie-cutter apartment developments.

In college towns, Carlson argues that up-zoning transforms diverse neighborhoods into distinct districts with homogeneous populations: the student ghetto (a dense area of rental properties, run down by round after round of uninvested occupants), fraternity row and the faculty enclave. She says that managing population density in this way significantly impacts the character of neighborhoods and the lifestyle possibilities available in Iowa City as a whole. For example, as downtown commercial interests have tried to focus on the mercurial tastes of youth culture, mainstay residents (such as homeowners, young professionals and non-students) find that they go downtown less and less. As these folks stay away from downtown, businesses are less able to survive—unless they cater to students or sell Hawkeye gear—and a vital commercial district becomes a one-trick pony. The city as a whole becomes a one-industry town.

Carlson, a proud Iowa City homeowner and resident of the College Green neighborhood for 31 years, chose that location for its diversity: a fertile mixture of economic levels and a healthy combination of single and multi-family homes with businesses. As an officer of the College Green Neighborhood Association and concerned citizen, Carlson has been researching the issue of neighborhood sustainability, and she cites the recent transformation of downtown neighborhoods as a startling reminder of what up-zoning planning policies can do to Iowa City’s vital neighborhood communities.

Carlson is adamant that this is not a “residents versus students” issue or even an issue of pitting the residents against the university. Thinking about the ‘70s and ‘80s—the height of high-density development in Iowa City—Carlson is emphatic, “The real winners are the developers. They got their money and left town.” Now, she says, students and residents alike are dealing with the primary challenges such development poses for the quality of life in Iowa City’s neighborhoods, with crime and nuisances increasing in the downtown, Northside, Goosetown and Longfellow neighborhoods. In 2011, downtown saw the highest number of reported assaults, burglaries and drug arrests, followed by the College Green area, which, according to Iowa City Police Department statistics, is the crime capital of Iowa City, suffering more than any other from thefts and drug violations.

How we compare

Carlson points to 2010 Census data setting the percentage of rental housing units in Iowa City at 53 percent, well above the national average of 35 percent. She also refers to a 2011 U.S News and World Report article comparing the percentage of students living in on-campus housing in that year. Here, The University of Iowa came in at 20.6 percent, well below the national average of 38.5 percent. She says the low amount of housing available on the UI campus has created a high-impact zone called the Pentacrest Mile, a one-mile radius around the Pentacrest, where most undergraduates try to get housing. For Carlson, the issues dealt with in that area—from noise, petty theft and fighting to high rents, lack of on-site apartment management and oversight, constant tenant turnover and its concomitant lower level of investment in the neighborhood culture and maintenance—beg the question, “Just who is responsible for providing housing for undergraduates, anyway?”

Carlson sifts through the piles of paper on her table, copies of studies, printouts of blog posts and market research data. “Because the university is only providing on-campus housing for 20 percent of its students, the city is responsible for housing the other 80 percent of students that the university brings to the area. It puts a lot of pressure on the city, and it’s no good for the students either. Living on campus is correlated with better performance, higher retention rates and faster graduation. If you want to graduate in four years, live on campus.” She believes that if the university provided 40-50 percent of the housing for its students it would take pressure off the most impacted neighborhoods and would also increase undergraduate student performance and the university’s ability to attract, retain and graduate its students.

The university does house 90 percent of its freshmen, but Carlson believes that a longer stay would significantly benefit all undergraduates by providing increased access to campus facilities and a greater level of social interaction with peers, faculty, administration and mentors. Her research indicates a link between on-campus housing and graduation rates, as well as students’ actual and perceived sense of safety.

Carlson acknowledges that the university is doing something. Plans are underway for a new dormitory that aims to increase the university’s housing capacity by some 800 beds over two years. In fall 2011, however, the university reported that the number of entering freshman in 2010 increased by about 494 students over the previous year and the number of entering freshman in 2011 increased by about 68, a trend that is expected to continue through 2015. As student enrollments increase, the addition of 800 beds will not increase the overall percentage of the university’s housing capacity, nor will it relieve demands for rental housing, which drive down vacancy rates and fuel high rental prices. Carlson grabs for her copy of the 2011 Greater Iowa City Area Apartment Survey. “It’s an issue of affordability and access,” she states. “With vacancy rates hovering at about 2 percent in the Pentacrest Mile and at about 3 percent in the greater Iowa City area, which includes Coralville and North Liberty, people are priced right out of the market.”

The university has made efforts to deal with the challenges faced by neighborhoods in the impact zone and has taken steps to preserve the character of these neighborhoods. Carlson points to a UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership affordable housing program pamphlet. “The university will buy rental properties at market value, rehab them up $50,000, and sell them for between $60,000 and $200,000 to qualifying families who agree to live there for 20 years. It’s a great program that’s bringing families back into neighborhoods.” (Actually, the language is that the home must remain owner-occupied, not that the buyers themselves must stay.)

She praises the UniverCity project as a step in the right direction, but says she isn’t sure if the program will continue to be funded past 2012.

They’re Back

While the city has renewed its focus on neighborhood sustainability, investors also seem to have renewed their interest in developing high-density housing as single-family construction has slowed since the recession and the age of foreclosures. Carlson says she knows of three lots that are currently being targeted for high-density development: 821 East Jefferson Street, the site of the now-empty Medical Associates building; 911 Governor, the site of the now-empty (and rather unattractive) Johnson County Health and Human Services building; and 521 East Washington Street, the infamous, recently-demolished Red Avocado site.

Development of the lot at 821 East Jefferson Street is currently on hold while developers wait and see the dispositions of upcoming Central District proposals to limit the number of unrelated people who can live together to three, to limit new developments to three-bedroom maximums and to require new developments to provide a parking space for each bedroom. Prior to putting the plans on hold, developers pitched the project as being marketed to young professionals who have just gotten out of college. But, Carlson notes, “Floor plans never lie.” She laid sample floor plans of three-bedroom units next to the floor plans for upscale condos planned for Cedar Rapids. “I worry about what the students are getting for their money. Do these apartments have nice amenities or are developers just forcing bodies in just to make money? … Do students realize the safety issues of living off campus?”

Carlson takes a deep breath. “It’s a complicated issue. There are zoning laws that dictate what kind of development can happen where. There are market laws that dictate the amount of money that must be made to recoup demolition costs if you want a new building, and there are the hard realities that our neighborhoods are facing. And I’m not against apartments, but we already have enough apartments in this area. And where they are added, green space and parking should still be preserved.”

Carlson settles into her seat at the kitchen table, looks over the piles, the graphs, the maps and the surveys. “This is an ethical issue. An issue of conduct and actions. An issue of neighborhood stewardship. The past generation gave me this neighborhood. I want to give it to the next generation. We have to make sure that today’s decisions don’t compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This is our city. We need to ask the university and the board of regents what their responsibility to provide housing for their students is. We need them to look at the effect their decision has on UI students, financially and academically.”

As for the type of town we are building today, newly-elected city council member and UI Urban Planning Professor Jim Throgmorton says he believes higher-density development can work in Iowa City, as long as there is a keen sense of design in terms of green space, amenities and how the building meets the existing streetscape.

Carlson picks up a well-worn document studded with yellow sticky notes, “We have to hold the city accountable to what it has laid out in the zoning code.” She steps away from the kitchen table and reads from Title 14, the zoning code for Iowa City as if reading from a holy book: “Zoning is intended to implement the City of Iowa City’s Comprehensive Plan in a manner that promotes health, safety, order, convenience, prosperity and the general welfare of the citizens of Iowa City.” She pauses, fire in her eyes, “People need to know what the Central District plan says. They need to read it. And we all need to hold the city accountable to what they have said.”

Raquel Baker is working on a PhD in English Literary Studies at The University of Iowa, specializing in Postcolonial Studies and African Literature. Her short stories have been published in The Womanist and Crux.