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.

The perceived threat of a lawsuit related to the city’s decision to deny construction of an affordable housing project by The Housing Fellowship in June 2010 has stopped the city from funding assisted housing projects until a new city policy is implemented.

At a work session on March 1, 2010, the Iowa City Council denied a staff recommendation to approve an affordable housing project proposed by The Housing Fellowship that would have included up to six units at 2500 Muscatine Ave.

Mayor Matt Hayek, and council members Connie Champion, Terry Dickens and Susan Mims said they would not support the proposal, despite city staff recommendation.

Jeff Davidson, Iowa City’s planning and community development director, said his staff recommended approval of The Housing Fellowship project because of its location near other essential services.

“We felt it was pretty good because it was near an elementary school, it was walkable to the elementary school, it was walkable to the grocery store and convenience stores and doctors’ offices, it was located on a transit route, it was near a park,” Davidson said. “We felt it was a great location for families to live; city council disagreed.”

When asked about her vote to deny the project earlier this month, Champion said she was looking out for the interests of the school, in this case Lucas Elementary, in her decision.

Connie Champion, Iowa City council member. Source: Press-Citizen

“My concern is that it would have been in a school district that already had a high level of free and reduced lunch,” Champion said. “Those are things that I personally need to consider.”

The Housing Fellowship argued that the council’s rationale violates the U.S. Fair Housing Act, which prohibits making decisions based on “familial status.”

As related to housing, familial status discrimination refers to unfair treatment because a family has children.

The Housing Fellowship presented Iowa City attorney Eleanor Dilkes with an opinion dated June 10, 2010, from their lawyer, Harry Kelly. In the opinion, Kelly expressed the organization’s concerns about the city’s decision to deny the project.

“The course chosen — using zoning and land use policies to prevent the construction of multi-family housing — has a clear discriminatory impact on both minorities and families with children,” Kelly wrote. “Simply put, the (Fair Housing) Act does not allow municipalities to use discriminatory housing policies to reduce its educational expenses or to solve other community needs.”

Dilkes denied any discrimination on the part of the city, but since receiving the letter, city officials are reworking their policy for scattering affordable housing.

The council is expected to discuss a reworked policy at its Monday, Jan. 31 work session.

“It’s good to see us finally having a comprehensive discussion about it with the objective of making some decision to provide direction to staff and to housing providers in the community about location and concerns we have,” council member Regenia Bailey said.

Maryann Dennis, executive director of the Housing Fellowship. Source: Press-Citizen

The Housing Fellowship is not moving forward with a lawsuit related to the proposal, Maryann Dennis, executive director of the organization, said Thursday.

Legal issues

The city was warned five years ago that using the fair share matrix to determine where to place new affordable housing might not be legally defensible, but officials took no action to correct those concerns.

The fair share matrix was created by the Scattered Site Housing Task Force and implemented by the city in 2005 to help ensure affordable housing was spread throughout the city. According to the matrix, the percentages of each total housing and assisted housing should be similar within census block groups.

For example, if a particular census block group contains 15 percent of total housing in the city, it also should contain no more than 15 percent of all assisted housing units in the city.

The matrix that officials used until last summer was developed in 2005 and had not been updated since, city officials confirmed.

“The scattered site recommendations, which were somewhat adopted by the city council, were based on data that are older, the early 2000 time frame, and those data have not been updated,” Hayek said in December.

Many of the city’s decisions on where to locate new assisted housing in the past have been determined by the impact it would have on schools, local housing officials said.

The Scattered Site Housing Task Force was convened after a 2003 Iowa City School District work session at which school officials identified concentrations of assisted housing as an issue for the district.

The district officials argued that concentrations of poverty contributed to lower test scores and student achievement at certain schools and that concentrations of assisted housing contributed to that.

When the task force met in 2004 and 2005, it used data from the district, including information about the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, to help determine where new assisted housing should be placed.

Pockets of poverty already exist in Iowa City, and increasing the amount of assisted housing in areas of high poverty would exacerbate the problem, the district said.

Jerry Anthony, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa. Source: Press-Citizen

But Jerry Anthony, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa, who served on the task force that developed the fair share matrix, said the information regarding the impact on schools is faulty because it does not provide an accurate indicator for assisted housing concentration.

The district does not track whether its students live in assisted housing.

“Free and reduced lunch drove this entire process, and really there isn’t enough information to say that kids in public housing are driving test scores down,” Anthony said. “We know the number of kids on free and reduced lunch is several times more than the number of kids in public housing. The district is trying to address a bigger issue by looking at a small group of kids.

“The idea has been perpetuated because no one has really called the school district on that to provide the information,” said Anthony, who also serves as director of the Housing Policy Program at the university’s Public Policy Center.

When the task force presented its findings to the Iowa City Council in October 2005, Anthony expressed his concerns about the plan.

“To really implement this policy, we also need a fair share matrix to identify the areas that have more than their fair share of assisted units and those that have less,” he told the council at the time.

Anthony said the task force and matrix, as proposed, was inadequate because the premise for the task force — that children living in public housing are driving test scores down — is false.

“(In) my personal opinion, it has significant shortcomings,” he said. “To make a scattered site policy legally defensible, the city would need to identify a new funding source to enable scattering without reducing the supply of assisted units and formulate a better matrix.”

The city has done neither.

(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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