UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership offers affordable home ownership options near UI campus

Douglas Court home

The UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership made numerous renovations at 310 Douglas Court: new roof, kitchen, bathroom, and floorings. The renovations are funded by a grant; these costs are not passed along to the buyer. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Here’s a primer on the UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership: the City of Iowa City purchases residential properties located near the University of Iowa downtown campus; renovations (up to $50,000) are done with grant money; and the properties are sold to prospective homeowners for little more than the original purchase price.

Essentially the homebuyer gets approximately $50,000 worth of home renovations for free. And here’s a little something special for permanent UI employees, courtesy of the University: you will be qualified for $5,000 in down payment assistance or closing costs.

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to comprehend the benefits of such a program. And considering the prices attached to these properties, you don’t need the income of a brain surgeon to own a home within walking distance of the UI campus.

“If University employees would like to live closer to campus but thought it wasn’t affordable, this program might be just what they are looking for,” says Sarah Walz, UI alumna and associate planner in the Iowa City Urban Planning Division.

So what’s the plan?

The UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership focuses on neighborhoods located near the UI campus with a fair mix of owner-occupied single-family and rental population. The program’s mission is to ensure that the neighborhoods surrounding the UI campus remain affordable and attractive places to live and work, for both renters and homeowners. Providing opportunities for University employees to enjoy shorter, more environmentally friendly commutes (walking/biking to work) is another goal.

Funding for the renovation comes from an I-JOBS grant; this money will allow the program to acquire and rehabilitate 25 homes in the designated UniverCity neighborhoods (click here to see map of designated neighborhoods). The first round of purchases included three properties—one on South Governor Street, one on Douglas Court, and one on Muscatine Avenue. (Click here to see details about these three properties.)

Renovations at the Douglas Court and the Governor Street properties are complete and the Muscatine Avenue property is nearly finished. At least five more properties will be purchased this summer; the I-JOBS money must be spent before the end of calendar year 2011.

“We plan on purchasing and renovating 25 properties, but we hope our influence has an exponential impact,” says Steve Long, community development coordinator for the City of Iowa City. Long’s idea is that by improving several properties in a neighborhood, it will influence other property owners to follow suit. Long has some anecdotal evidence showing his assessment is on target.

UniverCity on Facebook

The UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership has a presence on Facebook. Give ‘em a thumbs-up (and stay up to date on the latest property purchases) at www.facebook.com/UniverCityIA.
You can visit the city’s UniverCity web page here.

“I received an e-mail from a neighbor of one of the UniverCity-rehabbed properties. It said that improvements were being made to the owner-occupied property next door,” Long says. “We started working on one property, and suddenly flower boxes are popping up, a front porch is being fixed. The project brings a renewed enthusiasm to the whole neighborhood.”

The city brought four financial institutions on board, forming a lending pool that offered low interest rates. No city money was used to buy the targeted properties. The homebuyers pay the purchase price of the house plus interest and the cost of any upkeep and utilities costs incurred during the interim period where the city has ownership.

The benefits to the community and its employers are wide-ranging, Long says. “The University employs thousands of people. If we can encourage people to live closer to their jobs, we’re cutting down on emissions and travel costs,” he says. “Weather-related productivity issues decrease. And people are more willing to make an investment in the community. We’re working with other employers to offer similar incentives to the University’s.”

These neighborhoods are not just close to campus: elementary schools, stores, restaurants, parks, and the Iowa River Corridor Trail are nearby.

The city’s partnership with the University was proposed during the summer of 2009. The response, Walz says, was extremely receptive.

“We thought it might be a hard sell to the University—it was not,” she says. “The UI officials were enthusiastic about the idea and shared many of the same priorities: increasing opportunities for affordable home ownership, for example.”

How do I participate?

To qualify for the program, the buyer must be prequalified for a mortgage and the gross household income (defined as the total gross income for all adult household members except those under 24 who are enrolled in college) must fall within certain income limits. Incomes must be verified and will be checked as part of the application process.

The income limits (based on number of people in the household):

  • 1-2: $60,800
  • 3-5: $69,920
  • 6: $70,500
  • 7: $75,400
  • 8: $80,250

Applications are accepted on a continual basis. Applications can be downloaded at www.icgov.org/univercity or picked up at the Department of Planning and Community Development, located on the second floor of City Hall, East Washington Street.

Preference will be given to applicants who work within the designated neighborhoods, on the University of Iowa campus, in downtown Iowa City, or in areas in close proximity to the neighborhood in which the house is located.

The person selected is not obligated to buy the house, and he or she can have the house inspected to ensure that it is in good condition. Don’t come looking to haggle, though. The house is sold at the set price, as is. A prospective buyer need not look any further than the $50,000 in renovation costs, which are not passed on to the homebuyer, to feel good about the value found in the purchase price.