Today, more than 2,300 households in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City get help paying the rent through federal subsidies known as Section 8 vouchers.
The program, which has been blamed for local ills ranging from the migration of criminals from Chicago to the spread of drugs and violence across Eastern Iowa cities, has been a whipping boy in the Corridor for years.
Despite the persistent criticism, a Gazette investigation into the voucher program shows no clear relationship between crime and subsidized housing. The people who use vouchers, who administer the program, and many who study it fiercely defend it as an important stabilizing force in communities.
However, a close look at Section 8 in Cedar Rapids — especially in apartment complexes and the urban neighborhoods that flank First Avenue East — reveals concentrations of vouchers that housing experts say can hurt an area and are a sign of a neighborhood in bad health.
“What were once just pockets of poverty, those pockets have expanded,” said Dale Todd, a former City Council member and a resident of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood in southeast Cedar Rapids. “Right now, it seems like we’re treading water.”
Amid the chorus of Section 8 criticism, Todd’s voice is unusual. He’s a black man. He grew up in South Chicago and moved to Cedar Rapids in 1974. Now he lives on the north end of Wellington Heights, and he thinks his neighborhood is struggling.
“More poverty, more hopelessness, more people from Chicago in search of a better life but unable to find it,” Todd said. “I’m asking folks, point blank, where they’re from, and they’re telling me.”
The difference between today and 15 years ago, Todd said, is Section 8. New arrivals, particularly from Todd’s native South Chicago, aren’t blending into the neighborhood the way they used to and they’re not finding the jobs or stability they need.
George Galster, who teaches urban affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit and who’s published two books on federal housing policy, said there’s no evidence Section 8 vouchers cause higher crime rates.
But, he said, any more than four vouchers within a radius of 1,000 feet typically “starts to have a negative effect on property values.”
Research found 40 Section 8 vouchers within a 1,000-foot radius of the corner of Bever Avenue and 15th Street SE, the heart of Wellington Heights.
Heavy clusters of vouchers also are present in the Mound View neighborhood and in apartment complexes like Cedarwood Hills on Glass Road NE, the town houses at 3000 J St. SW, the Azure Apartments near the corner of 10th Street and Boyson Road in Marion, several buildings along Oakland Road NE and apartments along Broadway Street in Iowa City.
The debate over the connection between Section 8 and crime is complicated and passionate. While some landlords and neighborhood advocates insist vouchers cause problems, they are in most cases not a cause of neighborhood ills but a symptom, Galster said.
“When you plot the map, there are Section 8 folks living there and there is crime there. But the causation is completely backward,” he said. “It’s not that the Section 8 people are causing higher crime. It’s that the higher crime is causing, in this perverse kind of way, landlords to recruit more Section 8 people to come in there.”
For landlords, Section 8 can make business sense. It’s a stable source of income with a proven history, said Keith Smith, president of Landlords of Linn County. The program’s rules encourage tenants to behave well or lose their voucher.
“We ought to give Section 8 residents a fair shake,” Smith said. “A resident’s a resident.”
Some landlords avoid Section 8, believing the program requires more housing inspections and imposes too-tough standards on rental properties. Also, some landlords view Section 8 tenants as troublemakers who don’t show respect for the property or their neighbors.
Where they aren’t
The concentration of Section 8 vouchers is, to some extent, inevitable. Low-rent neighborhoods — the poorest ones — naturally attract vouchers.
Most Section 8 tenants in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City live on less than $20,000 per year. They pay about 30 percent of their income toward rent, and the voucher covers the rest.
Local housing authorities can only allow vouchers to be used at homes and apartments where rent is beneath limits set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For instance, in Linn County, a voucher can be used in two-bedroom houses or apartments where the rent is $649 per month or less, or four-bedroom homes where rent is $1,045 per month or less.
Portions of Cedar Rapids, however, have rental properties that are too expensive for vouchers or blocks full of owner-occupied homes, said Scott Seibert, who administers the Section 8 program for the Cedar Rapids Housing Authority.
“There are just pockets of this city Section 8 will never go to,” Seibert said.
Residential building booms over the past 15 years in southwest Cedar Rapids, northeast Cedar Rapids and Marion have helped spread out vouchers, said Seibert, who rejects the idea that some parts of Cedar Rapids have too many vouchers.
Still, several provisions in new legislation before Congress — the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act of 2009 — are meant to help housing authorities limit voucher concentrations.
The bill would make the housing inspection process less burdensome for landlords, encouraging more to participate. It would give housing authorities more freedom to raise rent limits — distributing vouchers throughout a community more evenly, said Will Fischer, an analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
“That would have the effect of making the rents more reflective of the actual rents in the area,” Fischer said.
Another provision would require housing authorities to monitor voucher concentrations and empower them to ask HUD for exceptions that would allow them to raise rent limits — again, in order spread out vouchers.
The bill was passed out of the House Financial Services Committee on July 23.
The housing authorities in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City pride themselves on the rigors of their programs.
In Iowa City, nine of 10 voucher holders is either elderly, disabled or working. More than 85 percent of vouchers in the Corridor are issued locally, not to out of towners. Voucher holders who get in trouble with the law, who shelter people with criminal backgrounds, or who don’t return letters and phone calls are kicked out of the program.
“We review the police dockets and the newspapers on a daily basis,” said Steve Rackis, who heads up the program in Iowa City.
Within the past two years, 230 vouchers have been terminated in Cedar Rapids. Iowa City terminates about 10 people each month.
A handful each year are fraud cases, where the voucher-holder lies about who is living with them in order to get more money, or who lists the home as their primary address, even though they live elsewhere.
“Cedar Rapids can’t be your summer home,” said Seibert, of the Cedar Rapids Housing Authority.
Right now, it’s a one-year wait to get a Section 8 voucher in Iowa City. It’s a three-year wait in Cedar Rapids.
Despite the long wait list and local preference, several residents familiar with Section 8 told The Gazette it’s not difficult to get on the waiting list from a distance, move to Cedar Rapids a week before your name moves to the top and then get a voucher.
Nicole Johnson, who lives near Metro High School but spends a lot of time at her mother’s house on 15th Street SE, said Section 8 — often called “leased housing” — is helping people who need it.
“Some of them aren’t doing the right thing, but most of these people are just trying to make it,” she said. “Leased housing is helping people.”
She said it can be difficult to find a landlord who accepts Section 8 vouchers, adding she would move to Wellington Heights if she could find a place there big enough for her and her two children. The neighborhood is within walking distance of a Hy-Vee Food Store and the First Avenue bus line, and she likes it. People gather on porches and talk to each other on the street.
“This is a nice neighborhood,” she said.
Even though the Section 8 program forbids people who aren’t on the original voucher agreement from living in the home, those restrictions can be circumvented. And they don’t prohibit a network of friends and family from accumulating around the voucher holder.
“We can approve a family, and they can be a fine addition to this community. But then an uncle, a brother, a cousin, a nephew comes,” said Seibert. “Can that happen? Yes.”
Wellington Heights, largely a quiet neighborhood full of two-story homes on shady streets, has seen an influx in the last three years of new people, said Terry Bilsland, president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association.
And while he knows several factors are at work, he has mixed feelings about Section 8.
“People need it, but sometimes I wonder if it’s good for our neighborhood,” he said. “It’s kind of a ball that bounces around, and it’s hard to figure out exactly how much damage it does.”
Section 8 Myths
Myth: Most Section 8 vouchers are held by people from Chicago.
Fact: 93 percent of vouchers in Cedar Rapids were issued locally. The program requires one year of residency and has a three- to five-year waiting list. 4.8 percent of voucher holders come from Illinois, representing about 50 households. In Iowa City, 9 percent of vouchers come from Illinois, representing about 114 households.
Myth: Most Section 8 vouchers in Cedar Rapids are used in Wellington Heights.
Fact: One in eight vouchers is used in the southeast Cedar Rapids neighborhood, a disproportionate number. But of the 1,066 vouchers in use today, southwest Cedar Rapids has the most vouchers (316).
Myth: When someone uses a Section 8 voucher, he or she can invite lots of friends and family to live with them in their home.
Fact: A Section 8 voucher will be terminated if the voucher holder breaks the terms of the agreement, including the term that says unauthorized occupants are forbidden.
Myth: The cities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City have billboards in Chicago encouraging Section 8 voucherholders to move to Eastern Iowa.
Fact: The Iowa Department of Economic Development occasionally runs billboards in Chicago encouraging people to move to Iowa, but they are geared toward professionals, extolling Iowa’s hassle-free commutes, for example.
Myth: Families on Section 8 have added hundreds of schoolchildren to the rolls for free and reduced lunch recipients at area schools.
Fact: Free and reduced lunch numbers have increased gradually — by about 50 percent, on average — at all Cedar Rapids elementary schools since 1985. Johnson Elementary School of the Arts in Wellington Heights has jumped from 40 percent free and reduced lunches in 1985 to 77 percent in the past school year. Polk Elementary in Mound View has increased from 56 percent to 90 percent. But six other elementary schools across the metro Cedar Rapids area have also seen 40 or 50 percent increases.
Myth: Section 8 is mostly for people who don’t work but survive on welfare.Fact: In Iowa City, 1,149 households in the program — 91 percent — are elderly, disabled or working. The same is true of 879 households in Cedar Rapids, or 82 percent of those in the program.