No Sweet Home: The struggle to find affordable housing in Iowa - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

No Sweet Home: The struggle to find affordable housing in Iowa

Desiree Dampier discusses her goals with a self-sufficiency coordinator from the Iowa City Housing Authority. Desiree Dampier discusses her goals with a self-sufficiency coordinator from the Iowa City Housing Authority.
A model unit at an apartment complex with listings on A model unit at an apartment complex with listings on
IOWA CITY (KWWL) - Like most mothers, Desiree Dampier wants the best possible life for her young daughter.

The years she spent waiting for a Section 8 home led her to leave Iowa, but she came back -- only to face life in a homeless shelter before finally landing an apartment.

"Got on a Greyhound bus with my daughter, and I actually said a prayer -- said 'God, put it in your hands, that we find something to use this Section 8 voucher with,'" said Dampier, who now lives in Iowa City.

The Iowa City Housing Authority recently re-opened its waiting list, but there are still hundreds of people, like Desiree, waiting for the call telling them they can get help paying for their home.

There are only 1,200 or so vouchers, and priority goes toward the elderly, disabled and families with children.

"Forty-eight percent of our families are working families," said Steven Rackis, Housing Administrator for the Iowa City Housing Authority. "Families that are living here, working here, struggling with the rent that qualify for the program."

Once families get a voucher, it can still be hard to find a place. Some landlords don't accept them.

It can be even more difficult in Iowa City, where rental units are in high demand because of the proximity to the University of Iowa. The vacancy rate is just 1 percent.

"That makes it difficult for anybody looking for a place -- especially, perhaps, a family," said Rackis.

For families who can't get a voucher or who make too much to qualify, there are other organizations.

Not-for-profits like the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, Inc. (HACAP) help people find homes.

"The services that we provide are really designed to stabilize households," said Jane Drapeaux, Chief Executive Officer of HACAP. 

Those services include the food reservoir, which helps stock food pantries in eastern Iowa, energy assistance, and nutrition programs.

Christina Conner sends her kids to one of HACAP's Head Start programs.

"It's just nice to have it," said Conner.

Officials say one of the biggest steps to a family getting out of poverty is having childcare.

"Making that childcare available to them at no cost is one less stress (or) pressure they have on their household budget," said Drapeaux.

According to the Iowa Finance Authority, Conner is "cost-burdened" because her family spends more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing and related expenses.

"It's kind of hard not to," said Conner, who lives in Cedar Rapids. "No matter what you do, you're kind of in that struggle."

She's not alone.

In 2010, around 45 percent of Iowa's renter households and 20 percent of homeowners fit that description -- up from 34 percent and 14 percent in 2000.

As more people struggle to pay for housing, more people are asking for help. 

"We're seeing more people coming to our doors," said Drapeaux. "More people in need of food. The utilization of our food pantries and getting food from the food reservoir has increased."

As the nation faced an economic crisis just a few years ago, Iowans were still recovering from the floods of 2008.

"The flood of 2008 had a devastating effect on low income housing stock," said Drapeaux. "50 percent of the people that lived in those homes, those flood-affected homes, had accessed HACAP services sometime in the previous three years."

Organizations like the Iowa Finance Authority are striving to get people into affordable homes.

"Our mission is to help Iowans of moderate to low-income find clean, decent affordable housing," said Dave Jamison, Executive Director of the Iowa Finance Authority. 

The organization recently launched, a free website to help people find rental units. The Iowa Finance Authority believes the housing market is a spiral-up.

"If we can help people get into the lower-end price points and maybe buy their first house or buy a house again, that person is very likely to move up into a different house," said Jamison.

While people are in those lower-priced homes, many organizations provide training to help them become self-sufficient.

"You increase the job skills, then there's a more skilled workforce here in Iowa City and that's attractive to area employers or people looking to potentially relocate their business here," said Rackis.

Dampier is going through some of those programs now. She hopes to own a home one day, and no longer have to rely on government assistance.

For now, the financial help means she can provide for her daughter.

"Every nickel don't have to go for rent," said Dampier. "I can actually give her a life."

To read more about affordable housing in Iowa, click here.
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