After Waterloo, Iowa, retiree Rosetta Robinson’s daughter had a baby, the two moved out of the small apartment they shared together, expecting to get a more spacious home within a few months.
That was last year, and the women are still living in temporary living conditions — Rosetta with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment and her daughter and new grandchild with a friend.
“It’s hard for me to even find a place,” she said. “The house and apartment is too high for low-class people like me, it’s just too much. It’s too expensive.”
Originally from Chicago, Rosetta moved to Waterloo when she was in 5th grade. Housing is one of the biggest struggles in the city, she said, especially for low-income people of color like herself.
“We’ve been here forever,” Robinson said. “They build more houses for the upper class instead of low-class people, and I’m one of the low-class people, and we’re the ones that need help more than the upper class.”
In Waterloo, a Democratic stronghold known as one of Iowa’s most diverse cities, the struggles of African American residents have surfaced as a slate of Democratic candidates stop by while campaigning to win the Iowa caucuses. Those challenges include predatory housing discrimination strategies like redlining, or the practice by government and financial markets of keeping black people in segregated and under-developed neighborhoods.
“Housing, within our community, is one of the top five challenges. Not new housing, but repairing and building up areas that have seen to have been left behind for years,” said Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, the city’s first black mayor. “We’re building new houses, we’re building new residential units, we’re very successful in that. We just need to make sure that we don’t forget about other areas of our community … it’s the portions of our community with heavy concentrations of African Americans, the sectors of our community that have not progressed as much as other areas.”
The city’s residents are quick to tell you they’re trying to recover from the November 2018 “Worst City for Black Americans” rating by a website called 24/7 Wall St., a financial commentary section of the Huffington Post.
So, the promise by some of Iowa’s top-tier presidential candidates to reverse the harm caused by redlining is promising for Waterloo, where the 30% homeownership rate for black residents falls short of nearly 74% homeownership for the white population.
“From the beginning, I said that we should embrace the report,” Waterloo Commission on Human Rights executive director Rev. Abraham Funchess said. “There is unfinished work to be done.”
History Of Black Migration, Settlement In Waterloo
When pulling up to the East Waterloo home that Black Hawk County supervisor Chris Schwartz shares with his partner, political organizer Logun Buckley, it’s easy to forget it’s 2019 in Iowa during a crowded presidential race.
After signing the sprawling, early 20th-century mansion’s guestbook and settling into a bright sitting room off the chestnut-lined foyer, visitors can peer through vintage windowpanes out to the city’s Highland neighborhood where the regal, historic homes of former industry leaders sit amid old dilapidated ones.
Schwartz and Buckley’s home formerly belonged to the owners of Rath Packing Company, a meat manufacturing corporation responsible for several African American waves of migration into the city.
Rath, at one time known as the “largest single unit packinghouse in the world,” paid black workers lower wages than their white counterparts — causing a number of strikes and race riots in Waterloo over the past 100 years and pushing those workers to live in cheaper sections of town. But unrest of those days still exists in a city grappling with housing discrimination and degradation, economic disparity and segregation.
“Those who fought against workers owned the house, and now lefty union organizers live here,” Buckley said. “It took a hundred years, but it’s ours now.”
Waterloo’s African American residents, nearing 16% of the city’s population, can be traced back to Illinois Central Railroads’ efforts in 1910 to break a strike of local white union members.
The railroad company brought up black strikebreakers from Mississippi, and a number of the recruits stayed, segregating into 20 square blocks on the east side of the train yards. This area continues to hold a large concentration of the low-income African American community today.
Then, during World War I, more African Americans came to the community as Rath — one of many packinghouses built in the Corn Belt in the 1890s — saw accelerated growth when the demand for canned and cured pork products increased.
John Deere & Co., formerly John Deere Tractor Works, was another big employer in the city. The black population working in its plants were often subject to layoffs and worked under poor conditions.
In 1968, a number of black-owned businesses on East Fourth Street in downtown Waterloo burned down after riots led to the burning of a downtown lumberyard. To this day, many of the businesses have not been rebuilt. Economic development in the city slowed even further during a farm crisis in the 1980s when John Deere laid off thousands of people and the Rath meatpacking plant closed.
As recently as the 1960s, government policy excluded blacks from owning homes, something advocates say has long played a crucial role in American wealth accumulation. Federally subsidized mortgages help people buy homes to build equity which can then be passed on as assets to their children.
The Federal Housing Administration designated predominantly black neighborhoods as zones for the government not to certify mortgage loans.
A recent project by the University of Richmond, “Mapping Inequity: Redlining in New Deal America,” is a digital collection of maps and descriptions the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation produced between 1935 and 1940. It shows the historical housing inequity in Waterloo.
Waterloo’s history of African American migration is consistent with the project’s findings — 43% of the city’s housing was deemed “hazardous,” or areas the HOLC described as “characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, under desirable population or infiltration of it,” where they recommended lenders refuse or conservatively make loans in the area.
The city’s largest “hazardous” area was located in an older, northwest section of the city where the John Deere Tractor Company was located; the Rath Packing Company has its plant on the south-side along the river. Other hazardous areas were next to railroad shops and old manufacturing establishments, or simply referred to as a “colored section.”
“There’s a definite, distinct difference in housing stock depending on where you go in the city,” said Hart, the mayor of Waterloo. “There is still a serious need for housing improvement.”
Today’s Housing Struggles
Schwartz and Buckley, who are both white, almost didn’t buy their home. Their realtor warned them about hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs, and instead guided the couple toward pricier, smaller options on the west side of town.
Schwartz suspected the realtor did that because the home is on the east side of Washington Street in downtown Waterloo, where the low-income African American community and a lot of the city’s “hazardous” sections are placed.
“For a long time, people will refer to anything that’s on the east side of the river as ‘bad,’ or ‘must be rough, must be a tough place to live,’ because there is a lot of black population,” Schwartz said. “I have a hard time understanding what [the relator’s] motivation would have been to steer us away from this. But a lot of white people are steered toward the west side, where they often go.”
Though the days of FHA zoning are over, Terrance Hollingsworth, a commissioner on the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, said he still heard people in the community getting rejected for loans or are offered lower amounts of capital.
Waterloo resident Breanne Marshall said she has dealt with inconsistent housing in the city for years.
After growing up in East Waterloo, she moved to Chicago at 18, in 2004. The African American mother of four then moved back to the city in 2011 and briefly lived in Cedar Rapids before settling in her hometown in November 2017.
Marshall pays housing costs with her disability check, but finding a place that meets all her needs has been challenging, she said.
“I have four boys, and having a safe home, a good, structured environment for them is important to me,” Marshall said. “Some of [Waterloo’s properties] can be infested with mice, rodents and stuff like that. And that’s one of the issues that we run across here, is getting a home in a place that’s halfway taken care of. Renting a home is not easy.”
Then, after choosing a place, Marshall said the hardest part of securing housing was approval by banks or landlords.
Marshall tried to rent a couple of houses prior to where she’s living now, in a west Waterloo apartment unit. She said she still doesn’t know why she was denied from the housing applications and was instead accepted to live in apartments on the other side of town.
“It’s not like I have evictions on my record, it’s not that I owe landlords rent money or anything or destroyed properties,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t getting responses back. I called a couple of places and they were like, we can’t rent to you, and they wouldn’t even tell me why. I know a couple of people who haven’t been able to get into the apartments that I’m in. So, it kind of just varies.”
Marshall said she wished she could live on the east side of town, by her friends and family, but can’t find anywhere she will be accepted in a safe area.
“Some areas, they will rent to anybody. And then it could be a troubled area, a crime area,” she said. “Definitely I could go rent in the area that’s a little bit run down, a four to five bedroom house in a really run-down neighborhood. But when it comes to wanting something in an area to raise my boys, it’s a little bit more strict and I don’t think it’s fair.”
Mayor Hart, recently re-elected to a third term, has attempted to make housing in Waterloo fairer during his tenure.
Within the past couple of years, the city has created a housing trust fund and, through state partnerships and community development, has built homes in places that haven’t seen new development in more than 80 years.
But the biggest accomplishment for housing in Waterloo, Hart said, was the formation of the Walnut Neighborhood Housing Coalition, a group helping to revitalize the historic neighborhood, which sat near the picket lines of civil unrest during the 1960s.
The coalition has brought private business, agencies like Habitat for Humanity and an African American developer together, among other partnerships. Now, new houses are going up in the area along with black-owned businesses and a small retail mall.
“We’ve seen the best way to transform any part of our community and housing stock is to make sure the residents and neighbors are all on one accord,” Hart said. “We’re hoping this can be a model to transform other parts of our community.”
But when looking at housing overhauls, Hollingsworth said it’s important to build new units that don’t price people out of their neighborhoods, but also aren’t so cheap that the apartment buildings turn into projects.
“Most people are talking about affordable housing in a way that I think hurts the growth of neighborhoods more than anything else,” Hollingsworth said, citing a development project the city is working on in collaboration with Hawkeye Community College, where houses are being constructed around 1,000-square feet on the east side of town.
“That’s exactly what the rail line did. It packed an area together and it said, this is where we want black people to live. And so, this is essentially a 21st-century rail line,” Hollingsworth said. “Relators are not going to come here and show people from out of town those homes. They’re going to show them homes in Cedar Falls.”
More segregation occurs by way of Cedar Falls, Waterloo’s neighboring metro counterpart. Included in the 24/7 Wall St. report’s analysis of the area, Cedar Falls’ black population totals 2%.
“When you look at the history of Waterloo, there’s always been an east and west side kind of split, and then there’s Cedar Falls,” Schwartz said.
The separation is especially apparent for Joan Ackerman, a Cedar Falls resident who moved back to the state after growing up near Des Moines, but spending most of her adult life near Seattle, Washington.
“Now I’m wondering why I live here,” Ackerman said, as she sat in a Cedar Falls church basement on a recent Wednesday morning with a group of white retirees and a few black residents. They had gathered to discuss a book called ‘The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.”
“In Washington, we lived in South King County, and South King County is one of the most racially diverse areas of the country. In our school district, we had over 130 languages spoken. It was just amazing,” Ackerman said. “The one thing I miss here is color.”
Despite the housing progress made under Mayor Hart, Waterloo residents are trying to improve their future by amplifying the area’s economic struggles to incoming presidential candidates, with a goal of boosting federal help and lessening the struggles of largely African American communities like theirs. Five presidential contenders will attend a Local America forum hosted by mayors from around the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago.
“Whatever we do, we can’t solve our problems today with the same mindset that we created them in. People need real equity and real opportunity to be able to own homes,” Hart said. “We need to be intentional in our efforts … we need to take a look at the way that we utilize our community development block grant money, and maybe the state needs to take a look at some special programs and opportunities to be able to do it.”
Waterloo has seen the success of federal funds in the housing arena, Hart said, like after parts of the city were devastated by flooding in 2008.
“We had a lot of success in 2008 with some of the monies that came via the floods to be able to go back and rebuild the communities,” Hart said. “And it gave areas that don’t necessarily see housing an opportunity to see new housing in their neighborhoods.”
But the way to strengthen neighborhoods, Hollingsworth said, was to make it easier for low-income communities to gain access to capital.
A federal attempt to boost capital for low-income communities has come through an Opportunity Zones program, which promises a capital gains tax reduction for investors if they inject income into designated low-income census tracts, known as opportunity zones.
The zones are comprised of U.S. Census tracts where the poverty rate is 20% or greater and/or family income is less than 80% of the area’s median income.
Waterloo has three opportunity zones. Currently, two zones are located in and around Waterloo’s developing downtown, while the third is in the LaPorte Road commercial area along Highway 218. But the zones end right before the railroad tracks, leaving out the low-income black communities on the east side.
Funchess and Hollingsworth both said the placement of the opportunity zones was detrimental to Waterloo’s black community.
“The three opportunity zones in Waterloo are where? Up by the casino, downtown, and Walnut Neighborhood. But it stops at the tracks right here,” Hollingsworth said.
“It’s the same bias, it’s the same redlining, it’s the same lack of opportunity for black people and black neighborhoods.”
Successful federal programs are necessary to pull the community up, according to Waterloo leaders, which is why it’s important for the presidential candidates coming through to see the reality of the city.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris address redlining in their housing plans, to varying degrees. Their plans to target redlining suggest offering down-payment assistance for certain first-time home buyers in neighborhoods that were historically “hazardous” areas.
Warren hopes to do this by expanding a bill she introduced in the Senate last year, the “American Housing and Economic Mobility Act,” requiring the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund homes in redlined areas.
In late October, Warren toured several African American-owned small businesses in Waterloo with Hart.
Buttigieg looks to fill vacancies in cities — looking to give vacant properties to people as long as they occupy their homes for a decade.
Harris, who just left the presidential race but continues to work on the issue in the Senate, also hopes to utilize HUD funds, but buyers could look to purchase homes anywhere, regardless of location classification.
Many other candidates frequently talk about the topic on the campaign trail. Cory Booker, whose life’s story revolves around an attempt to deny his family housing, opened his Waterloo field office this fall on the east side of town.
Hart said the Iowa caucuses have been helpful in sharing Waterloo’s needs with the 2020 candidates.
“When they’re able to take time out from all the ra-ra, and the huge crowds and walk around and take a look at some of the areas, that kind of resonates with us,” he said.
By Isabella Murray