IOWA DERECHO 2020

Nowhere to go for Cedar Rapids residents with housing assistance after derecho damaged their homes

City's 2.2 percent vacancy rate means very few available units after derecho

Elena Browning, 4, plays with a new doll she received at the  at the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association resourc
Elena Browning, 4, plays with a new doll she received at the at the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association resource center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Nineteen Cedar Rapids families on housing assistance whose homes were badly damaged by the Aug. 10 derecho are struggling to find new units in a city that already had an affordable housing shortage before the storm.

And LaKricia Browning has a deadline.

The mother of two is eight months pregnant. Her newest child is scheduled to be born Sept. 26 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City and Browning really would like to have somewhere other than a Coralville hotel room to call home when she leaves the hospital with the infant.

“With the virus and then the hurricane, it’s almost impossible to find housing,” Veronica Browning Johnson, LaKricia’s mother, said, referring to the coronavirus and the derecho, which sent hurricane-force winds in a swathe across Iowa. “She’s in a really bad situation.”

Cedar Rapids has about 1,050 residents who participate in the federal Housing Choice Voucher program to help pay rent on apartments and houses owned by private landlords. City inspectors who went out after the storm deemed 19 units uninhabitable because of missing roofs, crumbling ceilings or other major damage, said Sara Buck, Housing Programs manager.

These units housed 42 people, including 23 adults and 19 children.

The city is paying some residents to stay in hotels as landlords make repairs or the residents look for new units, Buck said. Tenants with renters insurance have had insurance companies pay for their hotels.

“Our count is now up to 19 vouchers we have issued, a very small number overall, which is great,” Buck said. “People were able to get into a hotel or stay with friends or family in the interim.”

But finding a new apartment is going to be a hurdle in a city with a vacancy rate of only 2.2 percent, according to a Housing Needs Assessment done in February.

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“This is not broken down by unit cost, but typically, properties that received local, state, or federal funds to produce affordable housing have full waiting lists,” Buck said. “This tells me that there is very little vacancy in these units.”

Buck’s staff is surveying all registered landlords in Cedar Rapids to see what units they have available and ask about rent amounts. Staff are using that information to try to match the most vulnerable tenants, including families with children, with available apartments or houses, Buck said.

“Now we’re actually trying to find the units and asking them if they would accept Section 8,” Buck said, referring to the former name of the Housing Choice Voucher program. The city also is helping pay deposits to get residents into available housing, she said.

Residents can take their voucher anywhere in Linn or Benton counties, but Buck knows many want to stay near jobs, schools and family.

That is the case for Browning, who wants to stay in Cedar Rapids, where her mother and sister live. Browning Johnson, who is battling cancer, also wants to keep her children and grandchildren close.

The derecho pulled electrical wires off LaKricia’s house, Browning Johnson said.

“If the landlord only had one property and could put all his time toward this place, he probably could get it back up and running for her,” she said. “Housing does not believe they’ll have it done.”

Buck is hoping a new apartment complex scheduled to open in October will make some vacancies elsewhere.

Anderson Greene is a 44-unit, two story complex off Kirkwood Boulevard that welcomes housing vouchers and has a sliding scale for rent of some units.

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“That is already filled,” Buck said. “But it may open up some units somewhere else.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs the federal voucher program, typically allows 120 days for a participant to find new housing. But since Linn County has a presidential disaster declaration, local officials can grant extensions so residents don’t lose the vouchers.

“We are more than willing to give continuous waivers, so that would not happen,” Buck said. “If they chose not to continue to look, they would have to reapply to have another opportunity down the road.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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