The Renters Forgotten by Des Moines's Housing Policies

The city's tax credits and mandated affordable housing tend to benefit young couples and recent college grads, but initiatives to help lower-income renters are unfortunately limited.

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-facade 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 20-unit apartment building 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. Every new apartment building going up in Des Moines 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 six 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 waiting 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, a plunger, a can opener, toilet paper, a mug, a water bottle, dish soap, and a 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 have 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 a real community in the supportive-housing complex. He organizes barbecues in the courtyard, a 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.