Advocating for affordable housing

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Advocates for affordable housing display this pin.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — Dimy Doresca, who leads the Social Action Commission at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, tells of people showing up at church seeking help with housing. “Last fall, we had to use funds from the Social Justice discretionary fund to help a family in dire need.”

Around the same time, two out-of-state interests purchased manufactured home parks in North Liberty and Coralville and swiftly raised lot rental and other fees for the parks’ residents, many of whom live on limited incomes. This places the residents at risk of financial hardship and the possible loss of their homes, Doresca said.
State Attorney General Tom Miller reports on his website that complaints from homeowners living in manufactured-home parks have spiked in the last year. They report rent increases of up to 69 percent and utility fees that exceed the actual costs to the landlords. Typically people own their manufactured homes but pay rent for the lot on which it sits.

St. Thomas More’s Social Action Commission decided to respond by organizing a letter-writing campaign with parishioners to send the strongest message possible to Iowa legislators about the need to take action on affordable housing. The campaign takes place Feb. 23-April 5 after each Mass. The commission will provide sample letters, but encourages letter-writers to personalize their letters.

“Many of our brothers and sisters are struggling to make ends meet. They have to work multiple, low-wage jobs to be able to afford housing in our area where a two-bedroom apartment is in the range of $900/month,” Doresca said. “Our parish cannot stay silent on this issue. The Catholic Social Teaching has instructed us not only to feed our brothers and sisters in need but also to fight for justice on their behalf. This letter-writing campaign is the first step in this long battle for justice.”

The Iowa Attorney General’s office has been working on this issue. Its Consumer Protection Division office worked last year with lawmakers to propose new legislation, but the bill stalled, Miller reported. “For years, our office has been a lone voice raising concerns about abuses to manufactured-home owners,” he said in a statement on his website. “Our ask to lawmakers is simple: Iowa law should recognize that these consumers own actual homes and treat manufactured-home park residents as equal to apartment tenants, if not better.”

A bi-partisan coalition of Iowa lawmakers in the House and Senate have responded, proposing an initial 12-point plan to enact basic protections for Iowa’s manufactured-home owners.

State Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, is among the leaders in this effort. He states in a letter addressed to interested parties that Iowa law pertaining to mobile homes has “slowly been rewritten to significantly favor landlords over residents.” He said the proposed bill would restore basic fairness to both sides. Two key goals of the bill focus on protecting the property rights of owners of manufactured homes and ensuring that they have legal protections “at least as strong as they are for traditional renters.”

The proposed legislation would provide protections from rent gouging; require a 180-day notice for rent increases and specify reasons for increases above the rate of inflation. It would also require an explanation for utility charges; prevent utility charges from exceeding the actual cost of the utility; and require landlords to present legitimate grounds for evictions, among other requirements.

Angela Smith-Stoltz, owner of a manufactured home in Park Plaza Homes in Muscatine, said the proposed bill gives her hope. At present, “We don’t have the same rights as apartment dwellers, she said. Smith-Stoltz moved into her manufactured home because she needed an affordable place to live after a divorce. “A lot of people here are single parents, veterans and disabled older adults,” she said.

She seeks fairness for herself and the other owners of the approximately 60 manufactured homes in her community after the community’s new owner imposed a steep increase in lot rental fees and an exorbitant water fee ($100 a month for her). The landlord has reduced the water fee, drastically, but without admitting to wrongdoing, Smith-Stoltz said. She fears it could happen again, without a just law to prevent it.

She is grateful to the Muscatine City Council, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, the University of Iowa Labor Center, and community organizers in Dubuque who inspired her to get more involved in organizing her manufactured-home community to work for fairness. In December, she attended a lobby day at the State Capitol during which she shared her story with lawmakers.

“My motive is not to take these people on,” she said. “I just want the rights we should have as renters. I don’t feel we should be price-gouged.”

St. Thomas More’s first letter-writing campaign to assist Bread for the World in its advocacy efforts received a good response from parishioners, Social Action Commission member Andy Knoedel said. The commission hopes the new letter-writing campaign will cause lawmakers to work to provide effective legislative oversight and funding for desperately needed affordable housing options locally and statewide.

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