4 insights from researching housing instability in central Iowa

Mar 3, 2022
Amal Barre headshot
Amal Barre, Project Director, unevictIA

The Mind the Map exhibit, hosted by unevictIA this winter, offered the central Iowa community a space to learn, reflect, and imagine solutions for addressing housing instability. Surrounding data on evictions by ZIP code were the perspectives of those who experience housing instability and local advocates who are working to address the issue.

Mid-Iowa Health Foundation supported the project to help raise awareness of how housing instability impacts central Iowans’ health and well-being, and to support system changes that can have a broad impact. Amal Barre, who led the project, also is a HealthConnect Fellow.

As an urban planner and Vice President of Planning and Strategy at Oakridge Neighborhood, Barre has focused her research and advocacy efforts on examining what is happening across the region, while diving into building solutions that address specific areas of the issue. Analyzing eviction data specially has demonstrated the importance of having data to apply targeted approaches that get at root causes impacting community health and well-being.

In this blog, Barre shares what she’s learned through the process of working with community partners to develop the Mind the Map exhibit and the Margins of Error documentary that accompanied the exhibit. The exhibit continues to be updated and available virtually as a platform to learn and dive deeper into the issue of housing instability.

Here is a summary of her reflections:

1. For many, there is no margin of error.

When we experience a challenge, most of us have resources or people we can call on to help us through it, but that doesn’t exist for many families who are low-income. Our experience of having what we need to navigate difficulties can cause us to assume that those who don’t have stability are making poor decisions or not working hard enough. In reality, instability often stems from systems designed to keep some people from accessing what they need to survive and thrive.

When an inevitable issue arises, individuals without access to resources and support can experience a crisis, which can spiral into losing their home. Or, in many circumstances, being forced to move can cause the crisis.

“If you reflect on the things that keep you stable and how you are able to sustain that stability, it becomes easier to understand that when you don’t have those resources, it’s impossible to have agency or control,” said Barre. “When you are not in a safe and stable housing environment, how can you possibly be thinking about getting a job or seeking health services, or how can a child do well in school?”

2. People are displaced through redevelopment.

“Housing is a system that requires scarcity. Housing is constructed and demolished. It invites. It displaces. Housing is the heart that palpitates throughout the body of our built environment. It controls the ways we interact within our communities and across to others. Houses are constructed daily. Some are given new life through rehabilitation. And others are destroyed, leaving people to scatter and build home someplace else.” - Margins of Error documentary

The loss of existing affordable housing units in the region is central to the issue of housing instability. In 2021, Des Moines lost 530 affordable housing units in the community, following a trend over several years. Redevelopment projects and property ownership transfers are responsible for rezoning of buildings, demolition of existing units, and increased rents. The combined effects of these factors reduce the availability of affordable housing units, especially for households that live on fixed-incomes. This can result in eviction filings. Barre sees the issue as part of a larger historical pattern of disinvestment that occurs across the city.

“Resources are always there, but we choose not to sustain the quality of a particular thing because of the people who utilize those spaces and places,” she said.

Finding a new place to live is not easy for tenants who receive government assistance, have a disability, and/or have an eviction or felony on their record, among other barriers. Most people are given 30 days’ notice to move out, often less time, which is not enough to find a place that they can live. In analyzing city council meeting minutes, Barre sees a lack of conversation about the people who are being displaced when leaders approve and fund redevelopment.

“Not having a housing preservation strategy or policy in place makes it very easy for developers to come in and change the makeup of neighborhoods without thinking twice about what that means for the people who live there,” said Barre.

"What was so startling to me [about the Mind the Map exhibit], was the availability of open units in a given zip code, in comparison to the number of evictions // homeless population. We do not having a 'housing' crisis,' we have an affordable and sustainable housing crisis that is man-made." - Mind the Map virtual exhibit attendee

3. Housing is more than a physical home.

“Housing is the link that keeps us attached to the communities we know, the communities we love, the communities we are.” – Margins of Error documentary

The project showed Barre how important housing is to community. A stable home is an opportunity to build relationships with neighbors, to get to know the physical environment that surrounds you, and to identify how to access what you need to live.

“I’ve become more connected to the community aspect of housing and how critical that is to our overall stability and the experience of belonging and connectedness and general access,” said Barre. “When you lose access to that housing, you experience shock in your root system and you are transplanted into new ground without any notice, without any sense of resources to be familiar with.”

For example, residents who have had to move out of affordable housing units downtown because of redevelopment have had to be relocated across the central Iowa region, often wherever case managers can find housing that meets their income guidelines and other barriers. For some, the only option has been moving outside the city to a rural community where rent is affordable, but they don’t know the community or have access to transportation to get around.

4. Nonprofits are tasked with addressing housing instability.

Just like many individuals have no margin for error in their lives, nonprofits also must scrape together resources to provide services to help those who experience housing instability with minimal margins for operating. Cities often allocate dollars to organizations who work on addressing homelessness, but more resources are always needed to meet the demand for services. Prioritizing housing stability is an act of prevention and for that we need effective and strategic management of public funds, said Barre.

unevictIA is working to develop additional tools that enhance our understanding of housing instability.

“I’ve come to understand that we just don’t have enough information to make clear assessments of our housing system, and the displacement it inherently creates, which means the responses we provide tend to fall short of solving things,” said Barre. “Having access to better data about the state of our housing system will allow us to reflect on the full scope of issues and, as a community, act deliberately to resolve rather than recreate problems of instability and displacement.”

Next Steps

unevictIA will continue to update data in the Mind the Map exhibit and is working on making the data more accessible to the public. In addition to creating a dashboard on available services for those experiencing homelessness, the initiative is creating an archive for residents displaced from the Jefferson apartments in Downtown Des Moines.

View the Mind the Map exhibit:

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