Des Moines

The People Who Can’t Take Advantage of the Des Moines Housing Boom

The downtown area is full of low-rent apartments. But the trendy neighborhood isn’t where those who could most use affordable housing need to live.

Mauro Whiteman and Matt Vasilogambros
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Mauro Whiteman and Matt Vasilogambros
Oct. 9, 2014, 10:23 a.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa—We’re stand­ing in a trendy one-bed­room apart­ment with pol­ished con­crete floors, mod­ern ap­pli­ances, and floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows look­ing out over down­town. The sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood is dot­ted with brick-façade factor­ies that are be­ing con­ver­ted in­to high-end apart­ment build­ings, bust­ling side streets that lead to res­taur­ants like Zom­bie Bur­ger and Ta­co­po­ca­lypse, and stores that sell rus­tic home de­cor and graph­ic T-shirts that un­apo­lo­get­ic­ally pro­claim Des Moines “the greatest city in the world.”

And how much does this urb­an dream abode cost?

“If you make less than $41,000 a year, this one-bed­room right here is $780 a month,” says Tim Rypma, the 34-year-old own­er of this new apart­ment build­ing with 20 units in the heart of the East Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood in down­town Des Moines.

That’s $780, for an apart­ment that could run two, three, maybe four times that in oth­er cit­ies across the coun­try. Some new apart­ment build­ings go­ing up in Des Moines that re­ceive fed­er­al fund­ing must re­serve half of its units for lower-in­come ten­ants. It’s rent con­trol for young couples or a twentyso­mething look­ing for af­ford­able liv­ing fresh out of col­lege. But those aren’t ne­ces­sar­ily the res­id­ents most in need of cheap hous­ing in the re­gion. 

“If you’re a fam­ily of three and you’re mak­ing $22,000 a year, you’re prob­ably not look­ing for a swanky East Vil­lage apart­ment,” Rypma says. “You’re prob­ably look­ing for a house near the school with three bed­rooms and a yard for the kids to play in. You’re not look­ing for this life­style.”

The Des Moines area is thought to be one of the most af­ford­able met­ro­pol­it­an areas in the coun­try; the cost of liv­ing is 6 per­cent be­low the na­tion­al av­er­age. The city of­fers tax cred­its as an in­cent­ive for de­velopers to trans­form old in­dus­tri­al spaces in­to cre­at­ive, new liv­ing spaces in the down­town area. Those new apart­ments must main­tain their rent rates for 10 years after they’re built. But these same rent-con­trol meas­ures in the down­town area aren’t be­ing taken in oth­er res­id­en­tial parts of the Des Moines area that are more at­tract­ive to lower-in­come, work­ing fam­il­ies.

In many ways, the Des Moines hous­ing boom has left a void, with some lower-in­come pop­u­la­tions lack­ing ac­cess to af­ford­able homes. For every 100 ex­tremely low-in­come renter house­holds in Polk County, where Des Moines is loc­ated, there are only 20 af­ford­able and avail­able rent­al units, ac­cord­ing to the Urb­an In­sti­tute. The gap between the num­ber of house­holds of four earn­ing less than $22,650 and af­ford­able, avail­able rent­al units is 11,205.

The prob­lem for many lower-in­come people in Des Moines is that their jobs are not ac­tu­ally in Des Moines, but in the sur­round­ing area. Af­ford­able hous­ing may be in the city, but they work at one of the two large malls in West Des Moines, or at the Bass Pro Shop in Altoona, or at big-box stores in Ankeny. These work­ers may also lack cars and de­pend on lim­ited bus routes. The av­er­age com­mute for the Des Moines area is 20 minutes. But for people who rely on pub­lic trans­port­a­tion, it can be up to an hour each way. 

Des Moines of­fi­cials are start­ing to take ser­i­ously the link between af­ford­able hous­ing, jobs, and trans­port­a­tion. Beth­any Wil­cox­on was a seni­or trans­port­a­tion plan­ner for the To­mor­row Plan, a re­gion­al ef­fort to make Des Moines more liv­able, and wants to make sure people can get to their jobs. Cap­it­ol Cross­roads, a re­gion­al de­vel­op­ment ini­ti­at­ive for the 50-mile ra­di­us around Des Moines, where Wil­cox­on cur­rently works as a stra­tegic co­ordin­at­or, is ex­plor­ing new rap­id bus ser­vices, cre­at­ing in­cent­ives for af­ford­able-hous­ing op­tions around the city and near job cen­ters, and edu­ca­tion re­sources for home own­er­ship.

“We of­ten­times hear how af­ford­able our com­munity is,” Wil­cox­on says. “There has been a lot of af­ford­able hous­ing built in the down­town area. There’s been a lot of re­devel­op­ment go­ing on, tax in­cent­ives, that people are able to ac­cess. But a lot of those in­di­vidu­als have been the young pro­fes­sion­als mov­ing in, and not ne­ces­sar­ily those tra­di­tion­al pop­u­la­tions we think of with af­ford­able hous­ing.”

The loc­al YMCA is try­ing to do its part to fill the hous­ing void for the very needy by go­ing back to the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s roots: provid­ing hous­ing to more-mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions who struggle with health is­sues and un­em­ploy­ment. Cush­ioned between an over­pass and trendy West End Ar­chi­tec­tur­al Sal­vage on South­w­est 9th Street, the YMCA Sup­port­ive Hous­ing Com­plex is the first of its kind na­tion­ally.

The three-story mod­ern build­ing provides per­man­ent sup­port­ive hous­ing to 140 people in the heart of the down­town area, with $550 apart­ments that are either com­pletely or mostly sub­sid­ized through gov­ern­ment tax cred­its and YMCA as­sist­ance. The idea is that you take people who are fa­cing hous­ing bar­ri­ers like ill­ness or home­less­ness, get them in­to per­man­ent hous­ing, and then sur­round them with sup­port­ive ser­vices. Here, they can look for work and learn to live on their own. More than half of the YMCA res­id­ents work full-time or part-time jobs, while the rest are on dis­ab­il­ity, look­ing for work, or re­tired. Sev­enty-four people are cur­rently on a wait list for apart­ments. 

Emily Os­weiler, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the cam­pus, says this is a place to call home for people who can’t af­ford tra­di­tion­al hous­ing. “A lot of people might think the typ­ic­al Y is a gym and a swim, or something like that, but we are so much more than that,” she says of the fa­cil­ity, which opened three years ago. “Every­one de­serves a home, and here they don’t have to go through all of these steps to be housed.”

The rooms have a bed, sink, stove top, mi­crowave, re­fri­ger­at­or, and bath­room. When ten­ants ar­rive, they get their own care pack­age with a place set­ting, sil­ver­ware, plun­ger, can open­er, toi­let pa­per, mug, wa­ter bottle, dish soap, and sponge—all items you’d need for a new home. There’s a pantry for people to get food, and buses for trips to the gro­cery store. Many of the people liv­ing here don’t know what it takes to live alone. Some have bounced from city to city look­ing for work. Oth­ers have been hampered by in­jur­ies or men­tal ill­ness. “I’ve had grown men in tears telling me they’ve nev­er had air con­di­tion­ing,” Os­weiler says. “They’re ex­cited about leav­ing their tooth­brush by the sink.”

Carey Olson, a 50-year-old Ce­dar Rap­ids nat­ive, is one of the res­id­ents who has found in the sup­port­ive-hous­ing com­plex a real com­munity. He or­gan­izes bar­be­cues in the court­yard, a little green space where people main­tain com­munity gar­dens or toss a foot­ball around. Sev­er­al years ago, he fell off a roof while do­ing con­struc­tion work and has struggled to find work since. “It was either come here or live out on the streets,” he says, lean­ing back in his room filled with fur­niture and tele­vi­sions he’s col­lec­ted from pre­vi­ous ten­ants. “With my knee and with all my med­ic­al con­di­tions go­ing on, winter around here would not have been good to live un­der the bridges. And I really like the idea of hav­ing my own room, my own bath­room, and be­ing able to cook.”

Deep poverty still re­mains in Des Moines. There are still home­less shel­ters, emer­gency shel­ters, and trans­ition­al homes for those seek­ing per­man­ent sup­port­ive hous­ing like at the YMCA. But those pro­grams can be lim­ited. Just this sum­mer, the city of Des Moines evicted home­less camps along the Des Moines and Rac­coon rivers for the third time, cit­ing health and safety risks. Cent­ral Iowa Shel­ter and Ser­vices provides a home for these people for 90 days, but then they are back on their own for an­oth­er 90 days. In the new and big­ger shel­ter, there are so many people that some sleep in chairs—and that’s not even in an ex­treme weath­er situ­ation. These Des Moines res­id­ents aren’t look­ing for floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, but for a safe, af­ford­able space to call their own.

This art­icle has been up­dated to cla­ri­fy city rent policy.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Des Moines to see how an in­creas­ingly di­verse pop­u­la­tion—a ma­jor­ity of pub­lic-school stu­dents are now minor­it­ies—and boom­ing eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment have changed this once-sleepy town. This art­icle is part of a Next Amer­ica series about the real­ity of 21st-cen­tury Iowa.

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