At 53, Rose LaGrange is living her dream.
She became a first-time homeowner in November 2009 with the help of a program administered by the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County, an organization that supports affordable housing by funding affordable home ownership, rental and transitional housing.
“It’s a big deal,” LaGrange, of Iowa City, said. “Just sitting down and starting to use terms like escrow and closing costs. It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you don’t have to go through that process, you don’t really have a feel for it.”
LaGrange’s modest home is in the Heritage Village development on the southeast edge of Iowa City. The 1,700-square-foot single story house with green shutters exudes warmth. Inside, the family’s colorful artwork provides a contrast to the neutral walls.
Subsidized probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing LaGrange’s home, but that’s exactly what it is.
LaGrange is one of more than 75 local individuals and families that the city of Iowa City and the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County have helped through the Single Family New Construction Program. She qualified based on her income being less than the median income for the area — $54,500 for an individual or $77,800 for a family of four.
LaGrange’s home is proof that assisted housing in Iowa City looks different than many people think.
People often have a skewed perception of who lives in assisted housing, said Tracey Achenbach, director of the trust fund.
“That’s not something that people really think through, you know. I think people have in their mind who the people are that live in affordable housing,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate thing because people make a lot of assumptions about who lives in (assisted) housing and what that income level is.”
People make assumptions about the quality of the housing as well, when, in reality, they drive by assisted housing every day and probably don’t realize it, Achenbach said.
In fact, that’s often the goal with affordable and assisted housing, local housing advocates say.
“We know that anybody who travels through this community travels by our homes often, but we certainly don’t want ours to stand out,” said Maryann Dennis, executive director of The Housing Fellowship, which helps provide affordable rental and owner-occupied homes for low income residents.
LaGrange, whose home is in a new development off of Sycamore Street south of Highway 6, said she’s aware of the stigma that comes with receiving housing assistance.
“You say ‘low income,’ you say ‘black people,’ and that really makes this town look bad,” LaGrange said. “We talk about how diverse we are. We talk about how we want our kids brought up in a diverse environment, but when it comes down to it, we hear all the talk about Taylor Drive and Hollywood Boulevard. I would like to dispel some of that image. (A lot of people) think that this program is there to give a handout to these ‘droves coming in from Chicago,’ and it’s just not true.”
LaGrange, who is white, began receiving housing assistance about five years ago, she said, when she had to remove herself and her three children from a dangerous situation at their previous home. They moved into a rental home on Franklin Street managed by The Housing Fellowship.
“At the time that I needed housing, I needed it now,” she said. “My kids weren’t safe, I wasn’t safe. (The Housing Fellowship) saved our lives.”
Although she was grateful for the help, LaGrange said the 900-square-foot home was small for the family of four, and she always dreamed of owning her own home.
At the time, she worked full time for the Iowa City school district and part time at Mercy Hospital to cover her bills and save money for a home.
LaGrange said she applied to the Single Family New Construction program on a whim and was selected in the lottery for one of 40 houses.
She took out a $125,000 mortgage, and the city of Iowa City and the Housing Trust Fund provided about $54,000 to help pay down the loan.
“Everything just kind of fell into place,” said LaGrange, who now works full time as a radiology clerk at Mercy.
Many members of Iowa City’s working class, such as LaGrange, struggle with housing expenses, Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said.
“People who use affordable (and assisted) housing include teachers, firefighters, nurses, especially young families starting out whose income is low,” Hayek said. “We want these people in our community providing the services we need.”
Local housing experts and advocates acknowledge that assisted and affordable housing carries a serious stigma.
“If everybody who lived in Iowa City was white, we wouldn’t be talking about concentrations of poverty,” said Steve Rackis, administrator of the Iowa City Housing Authority, which issues federal housing assistance in the form of Housing Choice Vouchers.
Despite little evidence to support their claims, Rackis said many Iowa City residents think that people living in affordable and assisted housing are minorities from Chicago who don’t have jobs but have children and are living off the services provided by other taxpayers.
“That rumor is coming from the notion that most people believe that the profile of somebody on our program is a black single mom with kids on welfare,” Rackis said.
However, data shows that’s not true.
“If you look at the actual data, you’re most likely to find a white female, disabled with no minor children in the household,” Rackis said of the typical person who receives housing assistance from his program.
In fact, the 2010 Housing Authority annual report shows that 65 percent of recipients are either elderly or disabled, and 64 percent have a white head of household, versus 34 percent with a black head of household.
Fifty percent of voucher recipients are one-person households, and combined, 98 percent are elderly, disabled or working.
Single mothers made up 42 percent of those who receive vouchers, but only 3 percent of all participants cited welfare as their sole source of income.
“There are always people who have the perception or notions that these are people who are just trying to work the system, get away with things, live off my tax dollar, and if they would just work harder or there wasn’t some kind of character flaw involved, they’d be able to have what I have,” said Crissy Canganelli, director of Shelter House.
Shelter House, 429 Southgate Ave. in Iowa City, offers transitional housing and outreach services for the homeless and displaced.
Rumors are rampant that people flock to Iowa City from Chicago and other urban areas to take advantage of housing assistance, Rackis said. However, the voucher program has a preference policy that applicants who live within the Housing Authority’s jurisdiction — which includes Johnson County and parts of Iowa and Washington counties — receive assistance before anyone living outside of the jurisdiction.
The housing authority issues 1,214 vouchers annually and the waiting list to receive a voucher has more than 900 names. The authority stopped accepting applications to the waiting list in early 2010. The wait to receive a voucher sits at more than two years for residents, Rackis said. For those who live outside the jurisdiction, the wait is indefinite.
Residents’ long wait for vouchers, a home of their own
Deborah Case-Schutzman will be the first to tell you her home is crowded. She lives in a two-bedroom mobile home near Cedar Rapids with her six children and ex-husband. Right now, she said she feels there are no other options.
Case-Schutzman applied for a Housing Choice Voucher from the Iowa City Housing Authority in February 2009, but like more than 900 others in need of assistance, her wait could be several more years.
Read more here.
Canganelli acknowledges that people can be found to fit any stereotype, but the stereotypes associated with low-income residents often are inaccurate.
“I’m not trying to say that 100 percent of the people that we work with or who need affordable housing or who come through the doors of the shelter, that they’re all nice people, that they’re all upstanding citizens,” she said. “You know, you don’t have that in any socio-economic status.”
Jerry Anthony, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa and director of its Housing Policy Program at the Public Policy Center, said assisted housing actually is much more spread across the city than most people think.
“There is a notion in peoples’ minds that the southeast corner of town is the bad part of town and where all the subsidized housing is concentrated, and the facts don’t support the impression,” Anthony said. “Just west of Mormon Trek (Boulevard) is probably the largest concentration of subsidized housing, yet people don’t think of the west as a bad place. It’s the southeast that’s painted as a less than desirable place.”
The “not in my back yard” attitude held by more affluent residents makes providing more housing difficult, officials say.
It’s common for the city to receive complaints about proposed assisted and affordable housing sites, Iowa City councilor Regenia Bailey said.
For example, a Housing Fellowship proposal for the Olde Towne Village development off Scott Boulevard on the east side of Iowa City brought strong opposition from nearby residents and business owners.
Forty-nine individuals and business owners neighboring the development submitted a petition to the city in November 2009 highlighting their concerns.
“We are definitely not going to support this plan and have neighborhood concerns about devaluation of our property and oppose more intensive development,” the petition states. “The impact of more intensive development, such as increased traffic, building scale and design, noise, demand on services, safety, increased crime, constant turnover, non-owner occupied nature of tenants and upkeep of the property all come to mind as major issues.”
Ultimately, The Housing Fellowship proceeded with the project, which included two buildings with four total units on Westbury Court.
However, not everyone is as opposed to developments like these or to having assisted housing in their neighborhood.
The Housing Trust Fund assisted in the down payment of 10 single-family homes in the Heritage Village development, including LaGrange’s. She said her neighbors have been nothing but pleasant since her family moved in.
“This particular development is very nice,” she said. “Here I am, a home that I took a $125,000 loan out for, and I’m living beside someone that paid $285,000. There are $300,000 homes in this neighborhood, and we’ve made good friends with the neighbors.”
So far, 57 of the 77 homebuyers receiving assistance in the Single Family New Construction program have closed on their homes since it began 18 months ago, Achenbach said. To date, a few people have refinanced, but no one has defaulted on their loan.
Many people argue that bringing affordable or assisted housing to their neighborhood also will bring crime, but those assertions are not supported by actual statistics, housing advocates say.
Of 480 violent criminal charges filed by the Iowa City and Coralville police departments in FY 2010, 27 were filed against people living in housing operated by the Iowa City Housing Authority. Housing authority tenants accounted for 347 of 8,172 charges, or 4 percent, filed that fiscal year.
Most Iowa City housing programs require a background check before receiving assistance and have strict behavior rules.
Local landlords agree that sometimes one person is accepted for assisted housing and then people not listed on the lease move in and cause trouble.
“There is some truth to that,” said Dennis, the executive director of The Housing Fellowship. “If we suspect anything, then we try and find out what’s going on.”
From Jan. 1 2008 through Dec. 31, 2010, Housing Authority assistance was terminated with cause for 377 recipients, according to data provided by the Housing Authority. Causes for termination include violent criminal or drug-related activity, lease violations, and having an unauthorized person living in the home, among others.
Another 900 participants left the program for other reasons, such as voucher expiration due to people not renewing their lease on time, earning more money than allowed for the program, moving away or death.
Other apartment complexes, such as Dolphin Lake Point Enclave along Highway 6, which is not designated as assisted housing but does accept Housing Choice Vouchers, are taking proactive steps to eliminate crime.
Rajesh Tripathi, project coordinator at Dolphin Lake Point, said he and other members of the management group have been working with city officials to address criminal matters at the complex. Tripathi works for a company contracted by the property owner to manage the apartments.
For example, Tripathi hired a security company to patrol at night and built a fence around the property so it no longer serves as a pass-through for non-residents.
Crime at Dolphin Lake Point has been a concern for the city, Senior Housing Inspector Stan Laverman said.
“There’s a high instance for calls for service for whatever reason …. It wasn’t one specific thing, there was an overlying high rate,” Laverman said.
When Tripathi’s group took over managing the complex three years ago, employees began cracking down on residents who were repeat offenders by issuing citations and evictions, he said.
Laverman agrees improvements have been made.
“As far as responding to complaints and stricter guidelines, one of the reasons I know it’s working is, as they’ve put these rules and regulations in place, we’re seeing some of the activity being forced out to other smaller homes nearby,” Laverman said.
Iowa City Police Sgt. Denise Brotherton agrees that people tend to make assumptions about where crime takes place and which properties are subsidized without having all the facts.
“It’s easy for people to draw conclusions,” Brotherton said. “Until you really know, you may assume an apartment is all section 8, but really it’s not.”
Fear stalls conversation
Affordable housing advocates say one problem with perceptions is that they’re often based on fear.
“When people get involved in those conversations, they get emotional and they have to do with fear, which is not rational,” Canganelli said. “You cannot come back and have a conversation that’s informed by data or informed by statistics because what’s fueling the concern, the worry, the opposition, is fear. Fear of something that’s different. Fear of the unknown.”
That’s the primary reason community-wide discussions about affordable and assisted housing are so challenging, Bailey said.
“The perceptions are very challenging to address because they’re often emotional responses, and that’s not to diminish emotional responses, but an emotional response, from a policy level, is a more difficult thing to deal with than a ‘I can provide you with statistics and this is the rationale,’” Bailey said. “A community conversation about our objectives would be interesting, but I’m not sure how manageable that would be.”
Perceptions also tend to perpetuate stereotypes about specific parts of the community, said Karen Kubby, a former Iowa City Council member, downtown business owner and affordable housing advocate.
“What I believe the stereotypical vision is, is of a young black man causing trouble on the southeast side,” she said.
Bailey and Anthony both pointed out that many people who live in affordable or assisted housing are active, upstanding, working members of the community, such as teachers, nurses and police officers.
“People have to understand that people who live in affordable housing are not from Mars, that they are not cannibals, but they are essential members of our community,” Anthony said.
Officials are working hard to combat those perceptions and provide an accurate image of who actually lives in affordable housing or receives housing assistance
“Perception is important in various ways,” Hayek said. “People make decisions based on perceptions, right or wrong, of a community and of a neighborhood. I think we have an opportunity to enact a more comprehensive and thoughtful policy as it relates to housing and similar issues, and I think we should do so.”
This article is part of a series:
- Regional Approach, new zoning system could help affordable housing goals
Many of those working to solve Iowa City’s need for more affordable housing agree that a regional policy for Coralville, North Liberty and other communities in addition to Iowa City would be beneficial.
- Legal issues delay affordable housing project
A local housing provider’s accusation that city officials were using discriminatory means of deciding where to locate new assisted housing has halted discussion and progress in Iowa City.
- Non-residents drawn to Iowa City housing vouchers
While only those who are legal residents of the Iowa City Housing Authority’s jurisdiction are able to receive housing assistance, that doesn’t stop out-of-state residents from applying to the program.
- After years of debate, lack of action frustrates hopes for affordable housing
For more than a decade, Iowa City has grappled with a chronic social problem – how to provide adequate and affordable housing for people who don’t earn enough to pay for a place to live. The dilemma seems to have stumped and perhaps frustrated everyone involved – city officials, housing providers, the school district administrators, developers and especially the people these programs are supposed to help.
(This project was collaboration of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and IowaWatch.org, the non-profit news website of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. The Press-Citizen’s features editor and specialty publications manager, Tricia Brown, edited the project, and its photographer, Benjamin Roberts, took the photographs. IowaWatch Staff Writer Lauren Mills designed the IowaCenter’s page layout)
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