Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Quality, affordable housing is central to maintaining a healthy community. A lack of housing creates ripple effects that can limit a community in often invisible but serious ways. When would-be residents opt out of living in a city because they cannot find adequate housing, they take with them tax income, revenue for local stores, and, if they have children, the per-pupil income allocated to schools. The city may also lose essential workers, such as teachers, police officers, and healthcare workers. 

Across the country, housing is a major issue as middle and lower income people have been squeezed out of the market. In some places, a significant part of the problem is a lack of what is called a housing stock–the number, quality, and variety of homes available for sale. Housing stock is at the crux of the housing situation in Clinton, this year’s community partner for the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC). The city asked for an updated housing assessment as one of the projects University of Iowa students would provide this year.

Aging housing stock

Tammy Johnson, director of community development for Clinton, says, “We have so many people who come here to work but don’t live here. Every morning, I see people coming from across the river [in Illinois] who turn into ADM.” Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) employs about 750 people, making it one of the largest employers in the city, along with Custom-Pak, a molded plastic manufacturer, 3M, and Nestle Purina. Johnson knows that a lack of housing is a big reason why these people don't live in the same place where they work; in fact, Johnson, who is a native of Clinton, lives in a smaller community nearby. 

A team of six UI graduate students–four from the School of Planning and Public Affairs and two from the new Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Sustainable Development–are focused on this issue for their capstone projects. During the fall, the group identified multiple factors contributing to the dearth of adequate housing in Clinton. 

One is an aging housing stock, including many structures that need so much work that it doesn’t make financial sense for most people to buy them. According to the Clinton County Assessor, nearly a quarter of the city’s housing stock is below normal condition  Even if one could fix them up, they are located in areas that are neglected and so new home owners tend to avoid them. For example, Johnson points to a house that’s currently ready for move-in for only $20,000 (and a lot of elbow grease!), but it’s been on the market for months because of its location. 

Dynamic conditions

Another issue is a lack of housing at the price point that would attract most Clinton workers. Are there new houses being built in the area? Yes. But they tend to be larger and much more costly than the basic ranch-style home many would like to buy. The employees in the city’s manufacturing sector simply don’t have options that meet their financial capacity. The team’s research concurs with Johnson’s observations about people who live outside of Clinton: More than 7,000 people work in the city but do not live there.

Although Clinton had a housing assessment done in 2016, the IISC project will provide tools and action steps to help them address their issues. Jerry Anthony, a faculty member in the School of Planning and Public Affairs and an expert in housing policy, says, “Housing market and economic conditions are dynamic and policies need to be responsive to those changes for communities to effectively address local housing needs.” He explains that a housing study synthesizes information from a variety of sources "to provide a comprehensive view of a community’s housing needs.”

The IISC team, which is advised by School of Planning and Public Affairs faculty Haifeng Qian and Travis Kraus, has brought its multiple interests and skills to this synthesis. Mae McDonough, who is interested in the intersection of environmentalism and social justice, is researching the environmental efficiency of Clinton’s housing. Olivia Galyon, who hopes to translate her Master’s in Planning to a job related to housing policy, has focused on the housing needs of the city’s elderly. Matt Hodges and Maeve Biscupski, both of whom are in Sustainable Development, are incorporating the United Nation’s Sustainability goals into the group’s plan. While Samiul Islam and Alyssa Schaeffer have brought much-needed Arc-GIS skills to the project, creating data-driven maps that model affordability, job growth, and stage-of-life needs.

According to Schaeffer, much of what the team has learned about Clinton echoes the housing situation in other parts of the state. “We’re seeing a lot of towns in Iowa shrink in size, which presents challenges on many different levels.” She adds that while it is counter intuitive, “a shrinking population doesn’t necessarily mean that the community doesn’t need more housing.” 

Focus group provides perspective

Three young women talk with an older couple.
McDonough, Galyon, and Schaeffer talk to Clinton residents at the IISC kickoff in September.

The group attended IISC’s kickoff event in Clinton in September before diving into research. In December, they led a focus group at Clinton’s City Hall with representatives from local banks, real estate, and development, as well as two people spearheading an effort to create housing for currently homeless people. 

“So much of the semester was very data heavy,” says Galyon, “so it was really great to hear these prominent voices in the community and learn about real people’s experiences.” The focus group provided several examples of opportunities that are available but don’t always fit the exact needs or attention of the people they’re intended to serve. 

This disconnect between what’s available and what gets utilized is an issue the group plans to focus on during spring semester. “We can develop strategies to help people become aware of these resources,” says Galyon. “It’s definitely easier to do this than to try to come up with resources that don’t currently exist.”

This semester will include more face-time with residents of Clinton, including speaking with people who work in the city but haven’t been able to find adequate housing there. They will be researching land use policies, zoning, and different financial or economic policies that affect development. Also central to the spring’s work will be locating housing assessment models from other communities that are effective and inclusive. 

Johnson is excited to see the team’s results, which they’ll present at a final event in Clinton on May 4. “We are eager to address the current lack of housing stock, and we hope their recommendations will point us in the right direction,” she says. This is the second group of University of Iowa IISC students with whom Johnson has worked. “They have such a great perspective. It’s remarkable how positive and upbeat they are!” she says of the students.