Victims of the Iowa City housing crisis

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I appreciated reading The Gazette’s recent article from Jan. 14 (“Iowa City rooming house to be sold to UI fraternity”) telling the stories of yet more Iowa City tenants displaced by the alarming trend of closing down low-cost housing units so they can be renovated and rented at a higher rate than previous tenants could afford.

I am a counselor at a local mental health agency and I work with an individual displaced by this most recent closure of affordable, low-barrier housing. This individual hasn’t been able to rent a dwelling due to not having three times the amount of rent in monthly income, poor credit history, a misdemeanor criminal charge, and an early lease termination due to non-payment of rent — which was due to unemployment caused by disability. I have witnessed how it is becoming more difficult for adults with disabilities to find affordable long-term housing.

This is one of four housing trends that are setting the stage for a full-blown housing crisis in Iowa City. The second is that Iowa City renters pay a greater share of their income in rent than any other major city in Iowa. The third is that the low vacancy rate skews the logic of supply and demand to allow landlords to increase rent each year in a way that greatly outpaces increases in wages or inflation. The fourth is that the University of Iowa has started privatizing student housing on university land, externalizing costs onto students. Yet, with all of these contributing factors, it seems no one is at fault.

Landlords like to say rent increases are due to the rising cost of utilities and real estate taxes. The UI and other stewards of public goods are infatuated with privatizing necessities like housing and health care because the private sector is supposed to manage these resources more effectively; it is just the fickle will of the market that keeps poor and middle-class people from seeing any of these cost savings. This puts renters and citizens in a powerless situation of increasing costs that lower standards of living with no one and nothing to blame and therefore no vision of how things could be different.

In such a position of powerlessness, tenants desperately need a vision for how things could be better. We need institutions of countervailing power to offset the current imbalance.

If landlords and governments continue to choose to externalize their costs, they will put people in such a desperate situation that we may have to create and support tenants’ unions or tenants’ associations to increase tenant power through collective bargaining in order to decrease rent hikes and oppose predatory development schemes.

At the very least, we can start calling these rising housing costs what they really are: shifting of costs from the powerful onto the powerless, from the rich onto the poor, from the land owners onto the landless.

Perhaps such an analysis will prompt more landlords to go against current landlord culture and willingly balance the scales themselves by embracing their opportunity and responsibility to provide homes for people who need them while loosening their grasp on their market-given right to extract the most rent they can from people.

• Brady Sones is a counselor at a community mental health agency in Iowa City.

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