Locked Out: All counties in Creative Corridor lack affordable homes

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Ten years ago, more Iowans could access homes within their budgets. But the combination of stagnant wages and increased costs of living are taking a toll, pricing many workers out of the housing market and leaving the state’s least affluent residents out in the cold.

Fair Market Rents for two-bedroom housing units, as calculated annually for specific regions by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, have increased an average of 33 percent since 2007 for the seven- county region known as the Creative Corridor. Median household income during that same time period has failed to keep pace, averaging a 16 percent increase.

The end result, according to the latest American Community Survey data, is an increasing number of regional households — renters and homeowners — who are cost-burdened, meaning these households spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing.

Cedar and Iowa counties have the lowest percentages of renters and homeowners with mortgages who spend more than 30 percent of household income on housing. In Cedar, 14 percent of owners and 32 percent of renters are cost-burdened. In Iowa County, 23 percent of owners and 31 percent of renters are in the same boat.

Linn and Johnson counties have the most cost-burdened residents with about 21 percent of homeowners spending more than 30 percent of household income. In addition, 44 percent of renters in Linn and 56 percent of renters in Johnson are facing budget-busting costs.

The remaining counties — Benton, Jones and Washington — fall in the middle, all with a significant portion of residents facing housing options that aren’t aligned with their income level. For area residents with the lowest incomes, this housing crunch often results in unsafe or overcrowded living conditions due to “couch surfing” or doubling-up or, at the worst extreme, homelessness.

As Ehren Stover-Wright, research director with the Institute for Community Alliances, noted at a recent statewide housing discussion in Dubuque, all Corridor counties except Johnson have a threshold for most housing assistance that’s below the federal poverty line of $24,500. That means that some county residents — those earning below the poverty line but above 30 percent of the area median income level — exist in a void where nearly all properties are priced out of reach and their earnings prevent qualifying for assistance.

Even those that do qualify will have difficulty locating housing within their budget. In Linn County, for instance, Stover-Wright says 10,270 households earning below 30 percent of the median income level compete for about 1,300 affordable units. In Johnson, roughly 10,200 households compete for 254 such units.

Even in Cedar and Iowa counties, where there are fewer cost-burdened residents, the general lack of housing priced to match household budgets creates gaps. More than 600 households in Cedar compete for 28 affordable housing units. In Iowa County, 475 households compete for 42. As a result, only one out of every four households eligible for assistance receives it; others wait years just to claim a spot on public housing or Section 8 waiting lists. (The last time the Cedar Rapids waiting list opened was November 2016. The time before that was February 2015.)

Meanwhile, the annual cost to taxpayers for the federal income tax deductions for home mortgage interest and property taxes, which mainly benefit more affluent households, is double what the government spends on all lower-income housing programs combined.

HOUSING IS AN ECONOMIC INDICATOR

The nation has focused on health care, making insurance coverage and access a major issue in recent state and federal elections. But even as the political landscape sparked by these discussions highlights economic pressures and inequality, housing — typically consumers’ largest expense — has been mostly ignored.

Research completed by housing advocates in Johnson County makes clear that taxpayers pay more when residents are without shelter. That is, the public investment needed to provide housing is far below the public cost of allowing people to circulate through multiple emergency services — shelters, hospitals, treatment facilities, jails and prisons. Individuals in stable housing take better care of themselves and are best able to access and use services intended to lift them up.

When housing is combined with targeted wraparound services, even the most vulnerable and chronically homeless have an opportunity at a better life — and taxpayers face a reduced burden.

But the benefits of affordable housing aren’t limited to cases of extreme poverty. Diversity of housing matters to communities in the same way that age, race and other demographic differences boost sustainability and vitality.

When families use 30 percent or less of annual income for housing, they have more available for food, education, transportation and other key expenses. When citizens are cost- burdened, the overall local economy is depressed, and there are fewer opportunities for upward mobility, both of which lead to either stagnant or slowed growth across a variety of data points. including quality and quantity of workforce, small business development, community well-being, sustained quality in existing housing stock, academic achievement and citizen engagement.

Fixing the regional housing market should be a priority because it, perhaps more than any other local public policy initiative, benefits everyone.

FORWARD-THINKING PROPOSALS

Supplying housing that’s affordable and providing economic diversity within neighborhoods is generally a local issue, but federal money does provide support through housing choice vouchers, public housing units and project-based rental assistance or low-income housing assistance tax credits. Even so, investment has fallen well short of need, which continues to grow.

As a first step, the region should develop a common language and shared understanding about how affordable housing and diverse neighborhoods relate to jobs, development, growth and planning. A variety of price-points in local housing markets increases overall strength, quality and value.

More focus must be placed on market solutions, and land-use incentives, to create and maintain workforce housing.

Although the Iowa Legislature successfully blocked local governments from directly impacting wages, conversations about the connections between cost-burdened residents, reliance on public assistance and lackluster earnings must continue. When full-time workers can’t afford an apartment, it’s a societal failure.

Communities in the Corridor must actively work to end housing discrimination and segregation. Including all lawful sources of income to local civil rights codes would not mandate landlords rent to families receiving assistance, but it would prevent automatic exclusion of renters who receive a housing subsidy.

Inclusionary zoning — requiring new development to include a certain percentage of housing affordable to different levels of wage earners — must be adopted.

Initiatives that have worked well in other geographies — incentive zoning, need-based development, public-private partnerships, bonds that feed housing trust funds — should all be considered. Innovative use of vacant, city-owned land could be a piece of the puzzle.

Existing housing advocates must work together with understanding that homelessness in urban centers partly stems from a lack of rural affordable housing, and that regional economic development can only be built and sustained on a strong housing foundation.

Reversing the long-standing trend of cost-burdened residents won’t be easy. And, since these increases inched up over a course of years, no one should expect immediate results.

But each community must begin the conversation. We must make housing a local, regional and statewide priority.

BENTON COUNTY

10,154 households (25,699 people) are estimated to live in Benton County.

• 2,133 people in Benton County are in poverty (family of four earning less than $24,600/year)

• 8 percent, or about 820 households, earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (less than $22,600/year)

• These 820 households compete for 222 affordable housing units

• An estimated 19 percent of owners with mortgages, 11 percent of owners without mortgages and 36 percent of renters spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing

• Since 2007, Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased 26 percent while median household income has increased 19 percent

• Approximately 109 people from Benton County were homeless in 2016 and sought emergency services

CEDAR COUNTY

7,620 households (18,454 people) are estimated to live in Cedar County.

• 1,347 people in Cedar County are in poverty (family of four earning less than $24,600/year)

• 8 percent, or about 610 households, earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (less than $20,700/year)

• These 610 households compete for 28 affordable housing units

• An estimated 16 percent of owners with mortgages, 14 percent of owners without mortgages and 32 percent of renters spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing

• Since 2007, Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased 29 percent while median household income has increased 15 percent

• Approximately 37 people from Cedar County were homeless in 2016 and sought emergency services

IOWA COUNTY

6,819 households (16,311 people) are estimated to live in Iowa County.

• 1,126 people in Iowa County are in poverty (family of four earning less than $24,600/year)

• 7 percent, or about 475 households, earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (less than $22,400/year)

• These 475 households compete for 42 affordable housing units

• An estimated 23 percent of owners with mortgages, 7 percent of owners without mortgages and 31 percent of renters spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing

• Since 2007, Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased 21 percent while median household income has increased 20 percent

• Approximately 22 people from Iowa County were homeless in 2016 and sought emergency services

JOHNSON COUNTY

55,426 households (146,547 people) are estimated to live in Johnson County.

• 26,818 people in Johnson County are in poverty (family of four earning less than $24,600/year)

• 19 percent, or about 10,265 households, earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (less than $26,050/year)

• These 10,265 households compete for 254 affordable housing units

• An estimated 22 percent of owners with mortgages, 9 percent of owners without mortgages and 56 percent of renters spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing

• Since 2007, Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased 48 percent while median household income has increased 11 percent

• Approximately 1,597 people from Johnson County were homeless in 2016 and sought emergency services

JONES COUNTY

8,171 households (20,439 people) are estimated to live in Jones County.

• 2,269 people in Jones County are in poverty (family of four earning less than $24,600/year)

• 11 percent, or about 900 households, earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (less than $20,150/year)

• These 900 households compete for 76 affordable housing units

• An estimated 24 percent of owners with mortgages, 10 percent of owners without mortgages and 39 percent of renters spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing

• Since 2007, Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased 27 percent while median household income has increased 24 percent

• Approximately 73 people from Jones County were homeless in 2016 and sought emergency services

LINN COUNTY

87,318 households (221,661 people) are estimated to live in Linn County.

• 24,383 people in Linn County are in poverty (family of four earning less than $24,600/year)

• 12 percent, or about 10,270 households, earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (less than $23,950/year)

• These 10,270 households compete for 1,296 affordable housing units

• An estimated 20 percent of owners with mortgages, 12 percent of owners without mortgages and 44 percent of renters spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing

• Since 2007, Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased 25 percent while median household income has increased 9 percent

• Approximately 3,313 people from Linn County were homeless in 2016 and sought emergency services

WASHINGTON COUNTY

8,938 households (22,281 people) are estimated to live in Washington County.

• 2,429 people in Washington County are in poverty (family of four earning less than $24,600/year)

• 9 percent, or about 780 households, earn less than 30 percent of the area median income (less than $21,500/year)

• These 780 households compete for 65 affordable housing units

• An estimated 19 percent of owners with mortgages, 7 percent of owners without mortgages and 39 percent of renters spent 30 percent or more of household income on housing

• Since 2007, Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom unit has increased 54 percent while median household income has increased 10 percent

• Approximately 117 people from Washington County were homeless in 2016 and sought emergency services

Sources: Institute for Community Alliances, Homeless Management Information System, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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