Priscilla Cunningham has been living at the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter in Waterloo for months, trying to get out.
During the day, she calls rental companies around Waterloo, asking them about places to rent, taking down names, phone numbers, and the amount of rent they’re asking. Over and over, she finds out suitable places won’t rent to her because of her felony conviction or her recent eviction, or both.
On Monday evenings, she takes the bus or catches a ride from the shelter to the Waterloo City Council chambers, pleading with the council to look into cases like hers, or railing against the lack of housing for people like her.
It wasn’t always this way.
For the last 12 years, the 68-year-old Waterloo woman lived in a two-room apartment on South Street. Cunningham worked two jobs, but still scrimped and saved each month to pay the $425/month rent.
For Cunningham, who has worked to overcome a criminal drug conviction that she served time for, it was all she needed.
“I had come out of prison looking for a house; I couldn’t find one. Everybody saw ‘felon,’ and turned down all of my applications,” she said.
In 2011, she found a landlord willing to look past a conviction, “and I have been on this same lease” since Cunningham said.
But her life was upended in the last year. That’s when her landlord sold the property, leaving it in the care of a local realty company, who signed her to a new month-to-month lease, upped her rent by $25, and insisted she start paying utilities that had previously been included.
Unable to pay the higher price (though she kept paying the original), her first notice of eviction came in early March. This started a legal process that ended with her and her belongings on the curb in August.
Now, Cunningham has a felony and an eviction on her record, both major strikes against her ability to secure housing. So she’s now spent four months at the homeless shelter in Waterloo.
Still, she tries not to let it get her down.
“I believe in God,” she said. “He’s got a place for me—I know He’s got a place for me.”
Cunningham’s story, like everyone’s who gets evicted, has a lot more to it. But she is far from the only Iowan to see her rent go up and face eviction and homelessness.
Abraham Funchess, the executive director of the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, tried assisting Cunningham in staying in her home. Ultimately, he couldn’t do anything about the rising rent, something he said is common.
“It is typical for new local and corporate landlords to take over housing complexes, establish new leases, (and) increase rent for all tenants,” Funchess said.
A half dozen property owners affiliated with the Black Hawk County Landlords, an organization of area landlords, all told Starting Line they have or will soon raise rents at least $25, with some raising to $75 or more. A couple of them cited the rising cost of maintenance or property taxes. Others simply said they believed the market could bear a higher price. (Landlords were granted anonymity to discuss issues more directly.)
That rise in rents, however, comes at the same time that emergency federal funding to help those newly facing evictions has dried up: The Iowa Rent and Utility Assistance Program (IRUAP) stopped accepting applications over the summer.
Two of those Black Hawk County landlords cited that funding when asked if their tenants had trouble paying lately.
“We had a small portion of our tenants that struggled more to pay rent when the IRUAP funds ran out,” one landlord said, while the other noted those tenants “are now starting to realize the process is the process, and they will be evicted if they don’t follow their lease agreement.”
Evictions at record highs
Iowa Legal Aid operates eviction-specific “help desks” in the state’s six largest urban areas, trying to legally prevent tenants from getting evicted.
Carrie O’Connor, who manages Iowa Legal Aid offices in Davenport, Dubuque, and Waterloo, said they’re busier than they’ve ever been.
“We just have a real affordable housing problem in Iowa,” she said.
There were 1,858 eviction hearings in Iowa in October, just two months after IRUAP funding ran out—the most there have been since Legal Aid has kept track. Year to date, the state has had 17,381 evictions, another record, and what O’Connor said was indicative of “really alarming trends we’re seeing.”
Without further interventions, she warned those records will only be the beginning of an eviction “crisis” in Iowa.
“With that rental assistance no longer there, all signs point to 2023 being that record year for evictions,” O’Connor said. “This is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.”
More homeless Iowans
In Des Moines, the number of people who are unhoused has doubled this year, according to Radio Iowa.
More than 2,000 Iowans were staying in a homeless shelter in January of 2021, according to the latest federal data. Another 500 Iowans were estimated to be living in vehicles, homeless camps, or some other unsheltered environment.
The Waterloo Salvation Army shelter Cunningham is staying in has also seen a 35% increase in the number of people who have stayed there, according to social ministries director Grace Fee.
In the organization’s 2021 fiscal year, which ended in September 2021, 445 people were at least temporarily housed there, including 381 adults and 64 children. During the 2022 fiscal year, which ended in September, 604 people sought shelter there: 484 adults and nearly double the number of children from the year prior, at 120.
The number of those citing “eviction” as the reason for their homelessness, meanwhile, tripled over the same period of time.
“Once the national eviction moratorium ended, landlords could and did proceed with evictions for lack of payment. At the same time, inflation rose sharply,” Fee said. “These two concurrent events contributed significantly to the increase of individuals and families in need of emergency shelter.”
Home for Christmas?
Just weeks before Christmas, Cunningham found something to hope for.
After months of landlords not giving her a second look, she has her first good lead on a place. It is being leased by someone who seems to understand where she’s coming from. The place has income-based rent, too, plus an in-unit washer, dryer, and dishwasher.
“God is good to me. God brought me 69 years next week if he lets me see that,” Cunningham said. Her birthday is Dec. 8.
Cunningham spent months in a homeless shelter. She’s filed multiple legal filings to try and get her apartment back. She’s filled out application after application with landlords who look at her record and say “no” without asking for details.
But that’s only her situation, not who she is.
Cunningham proudly showed off a photo of her, dressed in her Sunday best, as leaders at her church present her with an award for her community service. Even though her own situation is dire, Cunningham spends her free time when not working her two jobs passing out items donated from her church to those in need.
“I don’t have millions of dollars, nothing like that,” she said. “But I’ll do anything I can to help any individual in the world.”
by Amie Rivers
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. Find ISL on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.