The University of Iowa

Keokuk Housing & Homelessness Policy Briefings

Rhetoric students visit Keokuk
Academic Year 
2019-2020
College/Department 
Department of Rhetoric
Project Partner 

Students in the Department of Rhetoric class Public Policy and Persuasion developed policy briefings for Keokuk community partners, with the broad goal of helping to ensure safe, sanitary, and secure housing options for Keokuk residents. 

The City of Keokuk, located in the southeastern most tip of Iowa at the confluence of the Des Moines River and the Mississippi River, was once a boom town for manufacturing and industry.  Like many rural communities, the changing economic landscape and shifting demographics have introduced significant challenges in the community.  Since the 1960’s, the population has shrunk from about 17,000 residents to about 10,700.  Although it remains an economic hub in the tri-state region, several large plant closures and increased automation have left Keokuk poorer, less populated, and less healthy.  The city and its county, Lee County, have the unfortunate distinction of bottom (or close to bottom) ranking in the state across many community wellness indicators, including unemployment, educational attainment, and health outcomes. 

City leaders suspect that another symptom of increasing poverty in the community is housing insecurity, broadly discussed as the experience among families and residents of unstable, unsafe, or unaffordable living arrangements.  Homelessness, while maybe hidden from view, also appears to be a growing concern in Keokuk, and some abandoned properties are known to have “squatters”, who are often living in these spaces despite having no running water or electricity. 

Keokuk currently has no coordinated effort to systematically address concerns about homelessness and housing insecurity.  Recently, the city has been acquiring and tearing down dilapidated properties, which has been an effective tool for neighborhood stabilization (removing blight, protecting property values, and so on), but may have the unintended consequence of pushing more families into unstable housing situations. 

Community leaders recognize the need to coordinate a response to housing insecurity, including strategies that address both property conditions and the needs of individual families.  To begin working toward this goal, Keokuk officials sought to better understand the scale of the issue, the underlying causes, and the impacts on residents in their community struggling to achieve stable living arrangements.

For this project, four teams of students prepared and presented policy briefings and supplemental materials to Keokuk officials.  The four topic areas include: 1) squatters and abandoned housing; 2) rural homelessness; 3) tenant rights and housing inspections; and 4) child neglect and family homelessness.