Government

Affordable, fair housing at heart of Iowa City's newly adopted study

City Hall is shown in Iowa City. (The Gazette File Photo)
City Hall is shown in Iowa City. (The Gazette File Photo)

IOWA CITY — A new fair-housing study, adopted by the Iowa City Council on Tuesday, urges the city to make information regarding housing complaints more transparent and to check back on the outcomes, among other recommendations.

The unanimous council vote marks the culmination of months of work among staff from the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department and Office of Equity and Human Rights, dating back to last fall.

The 187-page document was designed as a blueprint for Iowa City to address identified barriers with concrete plans and policies, as a recipient of federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with a responsibility to “affirmatively further fair housing.”

Kirk Lehmann, Iowa City’s community development planner and a primary author of the study, said the goal is to complete its recommendations over the next five-year period.

“The staff is optimistic, and we’re excited to get this going because equity is something the council values, so I think there’s going to be good headway made,” he said.

One of the first changes Lehmann said the city is poised to make is updating its Limited English Proficiency plan, which the study says will ensure equal access to fair housing knowledge for a growing number of foreign-born residents.

The study’s four primary strategies for Iowa City to pursue include:

Improving Housing Choice: Iowa City could improve its range of housing options by increasing density, including by applying to initiate rezoning in some areas. The city also could expand or remove bedroom caps on duplexes or multi-family units and eliminate the distinction between single- and multi-family residential zoning districts.

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Facilitating Access to Opportunity: The city could reduce racial and income-based discrepancies in access to services, such as high-performing schools and affordable child care, by exploring ways to promote assisted housing across more neighborhoods, including low-poverty ones.

Other possibilities include making public service investments in areas with high concentrations of low-income families and expanding transit facilities, such as bus shelters, bicycle and pedestrian options.

Increasing Education and Outreach: Iowa City could develop new outreach and informational programs about housing opportunities and rights, including to account for people of color, people with disabilities and the elderly.

Other education programs might keep lenders, Realtors and landlords aware of best fair housing practices and up to date on policies to avoid differential treatment of applicants based on protected characteristics.

Improving Operations: Under perhaps its broadest strategy, Iowa City could make information involving housing complaints more easily visible to the public and actively monitor outcomes. Varying rules under federal and city housing programs could be harmonized, and the processes put online.

The city could make incremental updates to its zoning code, including to clarify its definition for non-family households — a holdover from before state legislators forbade zoning based on family status. And it could collect demographic data on local housing program beneficiaries to better track how policy changes affect disparities.

The study lauds the city’s fair housing protections as “strong,” noting officials received an average of 11 or 12 complaints per year since 2014, though it acknowledges “a lack of filed complaints does not necessarily indicate a lack of a problem.”

Of 234 individuals who returned a fair housing survey under the study, 69 percent said they did not know what filing a complaint would do, while 43 percent said they believed they understood their fair housing rights and 37 percent said they knew where they could file a complaint.

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Of the respondents, 26 percent believed they experienced housing discrimination — including by a property manager or landlord over using public assistance as an income source, age, disability, race or familial status — but only 3 percent filed a complaint.

“These results speak to a need for improving outreach and education levels around the city, including further developing its program to ensure broad knowledge of legal protections for all residents,” the study says.

Iowa City was home to 31,669 housing units in 2017, with an average of 611 new units built each year between 2012 and 2018 and 5,476 new units permitted over the past decade, the study found.

Most of the city’s units were renter-occupied, while the homeownership rate was found to be 48 percent.

The city’s study is updated about every five years. A section of its latest study details how city officials acted on findings from its previous one, which the University of Iowa conducted in 2014.

Following that study, Iowa City launched an Affordable Housing Action Plan to fund new housing and prevent racial and ethnic concentrations, made it unlawful to deny rent to Housing Choice Voucher recipients under its Human Rights Ordinance and held educational events for lenders and landlords.

A complete copy of Iowa City’s 2019 study is available on its website, at icgov.org/actionplan.

• Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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