On the evening of March 31 in southeast Ames, concerned parents gathered at Kate Mitchell Elementary School to discuss growing tensions attributed to allegations of student misconduct and an emotionally charged e-mail that had spawned in their presence. Some of the claims – a pack of fifth graders bullying classmates, for instance, and books gone missing from a book fair – sounded like typical, if serious, acts of childhood disobedience. Others, most significantly the premeditated bathroom beatings and an after-hours sexual assault that warranted police intervention, sounded downright criminal.
Kate Mitchell has the largest percentage of economically disadvantaged students of any Ames elementary, a fact which had led some parents to suggest that the school’s poorer minority population might be to blame for many of the rumored wrongdoings (although if these parents were at the meeting, they kept quiet). Because of this, Principal Pam Stangeland kicked off the discussion with a projection of slides which included details of the school’s demographics. Nineteen percent of the 304 kids were black and 7 percent were Hispanic, the slides showed, and about 40 percent came from a lower socioeconomic background. That said, school administrators stressed that behavioral problems followed no particular trend related to class or race.
What came next was a heated, sometimes aimless discussion about the values of diversity and the school’s lack of resources to adequately handle the academic challenges it faced. The comments came from parents, several of whom defensively flaunted their professional credentials, assuming that they were at odds with one another when more often than not their differences were probably minimal. “SES” – short for socioeconomic status – quickly became the buzzword of the evening, but the concerns regarding student safety rarely arose. The meeting ended an hour and a half after it had begun without any clear resolution.
“There have been lots of misperceptions,” Stangeland says. She attributes the confusion to individuals “getting information from inaccurate sources and making judgment calls based on inaccurate information.” Mike Brennan, who serves as investigations commander for the Ames Police Department and sat in at the March meeting, says police records back the principal’s assertion. “Assaults, things like that, they’re just not happening like people are saying,” he claims. He acknowledges that the most serious charge – the sexual assault – did occur, but says that it was dealt with immediately and properly. Rumors spread about problems at the school, he believes, have been the result of poor communication aggravated by the fact that the assault involved juveniles, meaning that many of the details of the case remain confidential. Both Brennan and Stangeland say that discipline problems at the school are not a matter of economic disparity so much as “the progressive development of kids that age,” as Brennan puts it.
“This kind of models community concerns in general,” says city council member Matthew Goodman, who also attended the Kate Mitchell meeting. Ask longtime residents about the city and chances are that a good number will reply, “Ames has changed.” They will likely talk about an influx of lower income individuals from urban areas who are flocking here to take advantage of government-subsidized housing – commonly referred to as Section 8 housing – and who have brought their big-city troubles with them. These concerns are sometimes referred to as the “Chicago problem” due to that city’s proximity to Ames in conjunction with somewhat recent policy decisions made by the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and because of a spike in violent crimes in 2007 and 2008, many of which had Chicago connections. The truth is more complicated than the whispers around town, and for years now it has been shrouded by half-truths and rumors which are difficult to confirm or dispel in light of a lack of conclusive studies.
The city of Ames first applied for Section 8 housing vouchers in 1979 to aid low-income individuals already living in town. In return, HUD gave Ames 50 certificates to govern tenant-based subsidized housing. From that time through the beginning of 2009, that number rose to 229. These vouchers have allowed successful applicants to find their own rental space so long as it meets the program’s relatively flexible requirements and the landlord accepts them. The other variety of Section 8 housing vouchers, which are project-based and limited to specific apartment complexes, nursing homes, and other designated multiple-tenant quarters, had 233 units in Ames at the beginning of 2009 that were under state or private control. Two additional units outside of city control had been assigned as Housing with Persons with Aids, making for a total of less than 500 Section 8 dwellings in the entire city, not all of which were even occupied. It’s a number that has not fluctuated since.
These figures were presented at a city governing board meeting in January 2009 by the Planning and Housing Department’s housing coordinator, Vanessa Baker-Latimer, during a debate on whether to begin conducting national background checks on Section 8 applicants (the idea was rejected). Baker-Latimer also presented a breakdown of where applicants on the Ames Section 8 waiting list lived at the time. The overwhelming majority of them – 90 percent – lived in Iowa, and 79 percent of those were from Ames. Among those already living in subsidized housing in the city, the presentation showed, a small majority (55 percent) were elderly and a larger majority (72 percent) were white. Those who defend Section 8 residents against accusations that they are part of an African-American criminal element transplanted from Chicago use this information as evidence that the residents are victims of stereotyping. By and large, they are correct.
But the city’s statistics come nowhere close to painting a complete picture of the controversy that has dogged the tenants of low-income housing. To be fair, the city does not claim otherwise. However, it has struggled to strike a balance between being politically correct and addressing the legitimacies behind the rumors about the changing demographics of Ames, and in the process it has appeared reluctant to openly address some concerns. Oftentimes residents who ask questions about correlations between crime and race are accused by their neighbors of being racially insensitive, when it is only sometimes the case. The uncomfortable reality that many would rather not admit is that the city does have a Chicago problem, if for no other reason than that people perceive it to be one – although as Brennan says, “First of all you’ve got to define what the Chicago problem is.”
FBI statistics show that crime in Ames started to rise in 2005 following a decline since earlier in the decade. In the latter half of 2007, the city began to witness a sudden and dramatic surge in violence. Many of the incidents – including a tire-iron assault, two robberies at gunpoint, and a domestic dispute that led to a stabbing death – were perpetrated by individuals with roots in Chicago. Police also interviewed witnesses from the Chicago area in another stabbing death then that remains unsolved to this day. As part of the city newspaper’s response to suspicions that this was all related to Section 8 housing, Ames Tribune crime reporter Luke Jennett interviewed Jim Robinson, patrol commander for the Ames Police Department. “In my 29 years here, I haven’t seen this amount of major cases that we’ve had develop within a two-month period of time,” Robinson told Jennett. None of the crimes in those cases were committed by residents of Section 8 housing, according to city officials. But this comes with a caveat, as Brennan points out: “Did they fall into that category of maybe knowing somebody who came out here for Section 8 housing? Possibly. Probably, really.”
An unusual degree of violence stuck with Ames as it entered the new year. Some of it – the stabbing death of one homeless man by another, for instance – had nothing to do with the so-called Chicago problem. But come July, in what was likely the most sensational example of the Ames crime spike, 33-year-old Tony Hayes entered the Casey’s General Store on Lincoln Way and shot his 27-year-old girlfriend to death. A wild pursuit followed. Nevada police officer Kailen Fitzgerald encountered Hayes riding a bicycle eastbound outside the officer’s town and stopped the suspect to confront him. Soon after, the two men were circling Fitzgerald’s squad car exchanging fire before Hayes hopped into the vehicle and sped off. Officers in State Center foiled Hayes’ escapade with a spike strip, landing him in a ditch. Several minutes later, Hayes was found dead. One of Fitzgerald’s bullets had hit him as he was stealing the car, whose rear window had been shot out. Hayes had a Chicago driver’s license. His victim, Lacrissa Davis, was also from Chicago and had been living at Ames’ Eastwood Apartments – a Section 8 project.
The refusal of city officials to release information about the recipients of housing subsidies – done in large part for legal reasons – has added fuel to the fire of Section 8 rumors. In 2008, Ames resident Joe Monahan filed a Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to obtain the addresses of low-income housing residents to see whether he could clear them of the rumors linking them to the Chicagoan crimes. “The story that’s emerging is it’s becoming apparent that the city is being something less than open and honest, and I think the city’s credibility is starting to suffer because of it,” he told the Tribune that December. Past and present Section 8 residents filed an injunction to block the release of the information. Ultimately, the injunction was thrown out, but the city requested that Monahan pay for the costs associated with sorting through its paper records – costs the Progressive certainly cannot afford – and he declined.
Several people who spoke to the Progressive say perceptions of an urban demographic shift started capturing Ames’ attention three to five years ago, during the time of the rise in crime. “Up until [then], the town was pretty lacking of any diversity from people that came into Ames for what seems like housing and jobs,” Brennan says. It’s not an issue unique to Ames. Communities across Iowa as disparate as Charles City and Iowa City have seen similar changes in recent years, and much of it can be traced back to decisions made by HUD during the past couple decades.
In the 1990s, high-rise subsidized housing projects across the country were coming under increased scrutiny for their widespread squalor, violence, and drug trafficking. In response, HUD decided to start closing down the high-rises to redevelop them into low-rises and integrate Section 8 housing into mixed-income neighborhoods throughout the United States. In Chicago, the government demolished many of the projects that had become plagued by gang warfare such as Cabrini-Green on the North Side and Rockwell Gardens on the West Side. By the end of 2005, all of the residents of the South Side Robert Taylor Homes – once the largest housing project in the country – had been moved out.
Meanwhile in the 2000s, the demand for Section 8 housing in Chicago overwhelmed its availability. In 2008, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) opened its Housing Choice Voucher Program waiting list to 40,000 families chosen at random by lottery, then promptly reclosed it. The CHA has announced that it will soon reopen its Family Housing Wait List, which has been closed for the past decade, to another 40,000 families. But it took more than 10 years for the city to make its way through the former waiting list before reopening it, to say nothing of the many thousands who didn’t make the cut to begin with. CHA spokesperson Kellie O’Connell-Miller told the Chicago News Cooperative that less than 1000 units will be available this year and predicted that the latter list would remain active for up to seven years while new housing developments are constructed. In other words, Chicago’s outward migration is not something that will likely end anytime soon.
It remains to be seen whether this will have a significant effect on Ames. Its own Section 8 waiting list was closed a year ago, and most of the 200 or so people who are still on it live here already. On the other hand, as Baker-Latimer acknowledges, some of those individuals might have moved here from Chicago, or anywhere else outside the state for that matter, before they applied for subsidized housing – the city doesn’t know because it doesn’t check. From January 2004 through December 2008, only 20 people were kicked out of Ames’ Section 8 program for drug offenses or violent criminal behavior. But as past Chicago-related crimes in Ames have suggested, the perpetrators tend not to be members of Section 8 housing. Some had no permanent address at all in the city because they were just visiting or might have been living without authorization at a friend’s or relative’s low-income dwelling – an especially easy task to accomplish in larger subsidized units intended for families.
But those Chicago “thugs,” as several people refer to them, were just a few bad apples who cast a shadow on a program that has provided a great deal of assistance to the needy in spite of its flaws. “I have no reason to believe they are not all deserving,” Brennan says of the city’s Section 8 population. Violent crime in Ames has subsided somewhat since 2009. After the Casey’s shooting, the city implemented the Iowa Crime Free Multi-Housing Program, which has led to greater communication between police and apartment property managers, more thorough criminal background checks, and environmental controls intended to enhance security on rental properties. There is evidence to suggest the program has resulted in meaningful drops in crime in other cities, and so far it appears to be showing results in Ames as well. More recently, the city police implemented the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, a community outreach program that has provided the understaffed department with an additional sergeant and officer.
For now, the city’s Chicago problem may largely be a burden on Ames residents – low-income or not – who abide by the law but are still looked upon with distrust due to perceptions fostered by demographic changes. New Birth Baptist Church Pastor Robert Knight, an outspoken black man who lives near Kate Mitchell Elementary, preaches to a predominantly African-American congregation. Through conversation and observation he has concluded that the backlash against Section 8 housing has been driven by a lack of education about its worth. “If the program went away, we would see a bigger problem in this community,” he says. “Crime is not based on race. Both black and white and other races commit crime. We just need to be very careful in this day that we don’t go so far as to select a certain group of people and isolate them because of fear.”
During Ames’ surge in violence, the Tribune published several editorials and letters to the editor that questioned why the Chicago-linked crimes captured so much of the public’s attention while other, equally abhorrent acts went largely unnoticed. The answer is simple, but not comfortable: the Chicagoan crimes were indicative of a trend that the others did not share, and they were committed by African Americans. Chicago is still a very racially segregated city, and the vast majority of its Section 8 population (and, more pertinently, a disproportionate percentage of its urban poor) is black. And as poverty increases, so does the crime rate. Considering all this, it was only natural when Ames residents questioned whether the brutal double murder committed by Atiba Spellman at the end of 2008 had a Chicago connection – and not necessarily “thinly veiled racism,” as the Tribune alleged. Neither Spellman nor his victims were from Chicago, although the victims lived in a house constructed by Habitat for Humanity.
This is not to say that racism does not exist in Ames. On the morning after Barack Obama was elected president, four cars on Phoenix Circle were vandalized with the words “the nigger won.” A month later, Ronald Gardner – the city’s most outspoken opponent of Section 8 housing – distributed fliers entitled “The Downside of Diversity,” urging residents to be more selective about newcomers to the city. The summer before, he distributed white nationalist literature in response to the Chicago crime spike. The Progressive was unable to get in touch with Gardner, but in a letter this April to the editor of AmesNewsOnline.com, he advocated the shut-down of Ames’ Section 8 housing program and a study to determine the relationship between blacks and crime. Abdul Muhammad, a black man and parent of two children who attend Kate Mitchell Elementary and another who used to (two of whom used to be on the free-and-reduced lunch plan for lower-income families), says that bullying his children have experienced has not been racially motivated. However, he says, “There are certain perceptions about there being certain neighborhoods in Ames that African Americans don’t move to.”
Racial tensions have been exacerbated largely because of cultural differences between Ames’ relatively small, middle class setting and the urban centers which many newcomers to the city left behind. “I lived in a fairly small town all my life, and I think if I had it reversed and I was going to be living in an area like Chicago, in a huge, huge apartment thing, I’d be in shock, I think, culturally,” Brennan says. “I don’t think people who live here in Ames really stop to think, wow, what a change it is for these people.” In Campustown, this perception of urban culture is prominent particularly at three racially diverse bars: Club Element, Project 20/20, and Sips. On a Friday night outside one of the establishments, an employee witnessed a minor altercation among a group of African Americans who had just left for the night. “This happens every week,” he whispered. “You know, with black people.” However isolated, these incidents have nevertheless contributed to the idea that there is a definite racial and socioeconomic divide in the Ames community. Says Knight: “When I first arrived in Ames, I could walk through the community in jeans and a hat and there were no second thoughts or any of those kind of things. Not even a second thought. Today, you can come dressed in a suit and just the fact that I’m African American I think draws attention.”
Clearly, the isolation that Knight warns of is already present in Ames. Muhammad says the tensions are plainly evident. “My overall assessment of Ames, as far as being a diverse place to live, is diversity is okay as long as it is racial diversity within the same economic strata,” he says. His wife, Jean, who is white, agrees: “I think Ames is really arrogant about diversity and how they’ve dealt with the new influx of minority population here.” Brennan, who moved to Ames three decades ago, says he noticed a certain sense of elitism in the community, which probably still lingers. “There weren’t a large number of people in a low socioeconomic bracket,” he recalls. “The cost of housing was just outrageous. I remember that was sort of my first impression.”
Anthony Townsend, another Kate Mitchell parent (who is also white), believes that the preponderance of apartment rental units has a lot to do with changes in the community. “Middle class people start to feel squeezed out,” he says. “You build too many apartments and then people with more wealth will move places where they have more space around them again.” A lot of Ames’ recent developments, especially on the southwest side of town, are apartment units. “I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made as a community,” Brennan says. Dean Hunziker of Hunziker & Associates Realtors says he doesn’t know if the concerns are worth responding to. Still, they have contributed to a common rumor, which goes as follows: property managers, realizing they have overbuilt, have been advertising in inner-city Chicago in an effort to lure new tenants into unoccupied, low-rent units. In an e-mail to the Progressive, Dave Hyman, Ames property manager of Haverkamp Properties, said he doesn’t believe there is any truth to the rumors. “I think it would be plausible to contend that Ames doesn’t have enough apartment units,” he wrote, but added, “I do think that the Ames zoning codes could be changed to allow for easier ability to provide different housing types.”
Ames has taken a number of non-police-related steps to address these sorts of rumors, which invariably become intertwined with the Chicago problem and suspicions of Section 8 housing. In the early months of 2008, the city created the Inclusive Community Task Force at the behest of Mayor Ann Campbell as a follow-up to a meeting at City Hall the previous November entitled “The Changing Cultural Face of Ames.” (That meeting, which Knight describes as “intense,” tackled the issue of growing racial tensions in the city.) The task force produced no concrete results, but it came to an important, if simple, conclusion: the citizens of Ames needed to communicate more effectively and provide new residents with more information about the city to better welcome them to their new homes.
A series of public forums – the Community Conversations on Diversity – were held not long after the task force’s recommendation in an effort to increase communication in Ames and dispel some of the nastier rumors still prevalent in the city. Brennan participated in the talks, which he says were adequate. “I think you had a lot of people who had lived in Ames a long time and were very naïve about new arrivals, who had very different backgrounds,” he says. “I think that was a real eye-opener for people who took part.” After the Community Conversations, a new group called United Ames, which is now an incorporated non-profit, was formed to continue the process. One of its action committees – One Community – has been reaching out to Kate Mitchell Elementary in an attempt to learn more about attitudes concerning class and race in Ames.
In order for Ames to move beyond its racial and socioeconomic tensions, it must take a sobering look at the underlying causes of the city’s discord. Undeniably, Section 8 housing has become an easy scapegoat for divisions in the community. That said, it would do the city good to let down its guard of political correctness and acknowledge that there are reasons for the suspicions of the program which must be honestly addressed before the rumors surrounding it will ever have any hope of subsiding. A little communication can go a long way – Townsend says that since the March meeting at Kate Mitchell, it already has there. As much as residents like Gardner hate to admit it, the city’s changed demographics are likely here to stay. The mayor has made it clear that even though Ames’ Section 8 program is running out of money, ending subsidized housing is neither feasible nor desired by the city. Ames is and always will be a community that prides itself on diversity. As Brennan says, “Jeez, that’s what our country’s really all about, right?”