Staff Editorials

Affordable housing is one key to better outcomes in school

The first of five brand new homes built by Four Oaks' Affordable Housing Network in Wellington Heights is ready for the owners to begin moving in on Friday, December 5, 2014 in Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The first of five brand new homes built by Four Oaks' Affordable Housing Network in Wellington Heights is ready for the owners to begin moving in on Friday, December 5, 2014 in Cedar Rapids. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Can high housing costs lead to poor school performance?

Researchers from a variety of fields believe they’ve found a connection.

Children who live in households without adequate and affordable housing or who experience frequent moves consistently perform poorly in school when compared to their peers.

The correlation between safe, stable housing and school performance is one more reason we all must work to ensure there is an adequate supply of decent affordable housing options for residents in Corridor communities.


A cost-burdened household uses more than 30 percent of its income to pay for housing expenses. Severely cost-burdened households pay 50 percent or more. According to Taz George, a research analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, a significant number of Corridor residents are bearing heavy burdens just to keep a roof over their families’ heads.

Johnson County — and Iowa City specifically, where residents have watched housing costs rise by 1 percent a year for the past 35 years even as incomes have stagnated or fallen — has a significantly higher share of cost-burdened households than do similar communities throughout the nation, George told attendees at a recent affordable housing conference hosted by the Johnson County Housing Coalition. Roughly 63 percent of Iowa City renters are cost burdened, he said. In Coralville, the percentage drops to about 48 percent. In North Liberty, roughly 37 percent of these households are cost-burdened.

Overall, 36 percent of households in Johnson County spend more than half their income on housing expenses.

In Linn County, 44 percent of households are cost-burdened, with half of those qualifying as severely cost-burdened.

And while higher housing costs most dramatically impact low-income households, the problem is becoming more frequent among households earning more, George said. In 2005, about 5 percent of moderate-income households, or those earning between $35,000 and $50,000 a year, were spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing. By 2014, nearly a third were cost-burdened.



Researchers at the MacArthur Foundation studying housing affordability in connection with children’s behavioral and emotional problems, found that stresses related to poor housing quality and instability, which includes affordability, led to substandard parenting practices and often parental depression, which made it more difficult for parents to form relationships with other adults important to their child’s well-being, such as pediatricians and teachers.

Another study found that housing insecure and homeless children are four times more likely to score below the 10th percentile in standardized tests than their peers with stable housing, even when controlled for income. Further, teachers in classrooms with students that frequently move experience lower morale and higher turnover rates, which can negatively impact other students.

These are community problems: In the short-term, taxpayers pay a price through increased child and parent health care costs and added reliance on other safety net programs. Over the longer term, communities suffer through decreased educational outcomes and stagnating productivity.

Stephanie Ettiger de Cuba, a research and policy director at Children’s Health Watch in the Boston Medical Center, compared communitywide investments in affordable housing to a vaccine: When parents aren’t overly burdened by housing woes, they have more emotional and financial resources to devote to their children and their community. Children develop better and go on to become more productive citizens.

“Quality, stability and affordability in housing provides long- and short-term community benefits,” she told participants at the Johnson County housing conference. “It is good for the community and for society because the more people who are vaccinated, the less chance contagious disease will spread.”

“We know it is all connected,” de Cuba said.


One factor in housing affordability is the law of supply and demand. When there are too few available properties of different type, size and cost than there is demand for those properties, housing costs tend to rise.

Iowa City, just like Ames and other college and university communities, is challenged with persistently high demand for affordable rental units. When all housing options are included, Linn County has about a 7 percent overall vacancy rate. This is well below the nearly 13 percent national average.

Local leaders must ask themselves, when the widespread cost of housing insecurity is so high and the benefits of stable housing so broad, why isn’t there more public investment in affordable housing?


Iowa City has joined the ranks of communities throughout the nation who are requiring residential developers to incorporate affordable housing into new projects. Known as Inclusionary Zoning, the policies often mandate that a certain percentage of housing units be set aside for residents within certain income thresholds.

The Iowa City policy, signed this past week, specifically targets the Riverfront Crossings district where higher-density projects are allowed. Developers will need to set aside 10 percent of their project’s total rental housing units for a period of 10 years and make them affordable to households making 60 percent or less of the area’s median income. Projects that receive taxpayer-funded incentives are required to set aside a larger percentage of rental units and agree to keep them affordable for a longer period of time.

The ordinance also applies to units that will be sold, requiring the set-aside properties to be affordable to households earning no more than 110 percent of the area’s median income. Developers who do not wish to include affordable housing units have the option of making direct payment to an affordable housing fund designated by the city or provide land for affordable development.

In Cedar Rapids, a proposed mixed-income apartment development has been awarded $8 million in tax credits as part of a state demonstration project. Crestwood Ridge Apartments, slated for 1200 Edgewood Rd NW, will offer market-rate units, affordable housing units (up to 60 percent of the area median income level) and five supportive-housing units earmarked for currently homeless families.

The supportive-housing component is possible through a partnership between Minnesota-based CommonBond Communities, the developer and property manager, and the Willis Dady Emergency Shelter.

If approved, the project will nearly double the number of supportive-housing units available in Linn County for occupancy by the general homeless population.

These are worthy explorations of the ways that cities can incentivize development of affordable housing. Many more initiatives and ideas are needed.

Clearly, our communities and our common future are strengthened when there is ample supply of decent, safe and affordable housing for all of us who call the Corridor home.


• Gazette editorials reflect the consensus opinion of The Gazette Editorial Board. Share your comments and ideas with us: (319) 398-8469;

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