Housing Affordability in Johnson County

In Iowa City, at any given point in time only 2% of rental units are available. In addition, the median rent is $939 per month. The low vacancy rate and high rent costs create a shortage of affordable housing for many any the area. While research on housing inequality often focuses on major metropolitan areas, there are many small cities and towns across the country facing similar challenges. However, less is known about how residents in these types of communities deal with housing issues. In order to begin to fill this gap in research I am working with Professors Megan Gilster (Social Work) and Barbara Baquero (Public Health) on a pilot study exploring housing inequality in Johnson County. Our work is being funded by a Community Impact Grant from the University of Iowa’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. Sean Kearney, a graduate student in sociology, is serving as a research assistant for the project. Adriana Maldonado, graduate student in public health and Xiomara Santana, undergraduate student in public health, are also working as research assistants for the project.  In addition, we are partnering with the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition (JCAHC), a group that is focused on improving access to housing in the area.

We are interviewing students and low-income residents living in the area—two groups most impacted by housing availability and affordability issues. During our interviews we ask members of both groups about their experiences finding housing in the area and some of the challenges that they face. We also focus on how their housing experiences impact other areas of life such as work, family and school performance.

Assistant Professor Jessica Welburn Paige
Assistant Professor Jessica Welburn Paige 

Preliminary Findings

So far we are finding that both groups—students and low-income residents—face a number of challenges finding affordable housing. For local residents who are not students, some of these challenges can include locating available housing units that they can afford and qualifying for that housing. Rental applications can be costly and can exclude people who have faced past financial difficulties that have resulted in low credit scores and/or evictions. While local organizations seek to help low-income residents find housing, some of our respondents have not received enough assistance to help with long-term challenges. When they do find housing, the housing can be in poor condition or outside of the city limits in areas that are difficult to access. For example, one of our respondents had success in locating affordable housing but it is in a rural area that is not near any public transportation, grocery stores, or other needed resources. Another respondent found an apartment in Iowa City that is conveniently located, but the apartment complex is in poor condition and units are in need of serious repairs such as new appliances, carpeting, and window coverings. Students also have trouble finding quality, affordable housing. Housing prices near campus are often higher than average and units are not always well-maintained. Students may also be shown model units that are in much better condition than the units they are actually rented, but are not made aware of this until after lease signing. In addition, some students report challenges simply finding out about housing opportunities because they feel they do not have the right social networks.

Future Directions

We are continuing to conduct interviews for our study. When we complete our pilot study we plan to present our findings to the JCAHC. We hope to eventually expand our study by interviewing more groups impacted by housing challenges in the Johnson County area.

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