UniverCity aims to blend renters with owners

BY JON FRANK | APRIL 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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A gas fireplace heated an empty house at 408 E. Fairchild St. on April 16 as visitors came and went as they pleased.

After months of reconstruction, the two-bedroom home is ready to be sold as part of the UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership Program, which University of Iowa and Iowa City officials formed in fall 2009 to encourage more permanent residents to buy renovated homes in student-heavy neighborhoods.

More than one year after the program's inception, it has nine homes for sale and has helped sell three others. The first home was renovated under the program in June 2010.

Iowa City Associate Planner Sarah Walz said officials are now focusing on strengthening relationships between student-renters and permanent home owners living next door. Establishing trust between the two is beneficial for both parties, she said.

UniverCity officials are also planning to implement a tenant fair, which Walz described as a "get to know your neighbor" event.

"[We are] creating a healthy balance between owner and renter in close-end neighborhoods," said Iowa City Community Development Coordinator Steve Long.

Because student neighborhoods can be more susceptible to crime, Walz said, establishing trust between students and their permanent neigbors can improve safety.

"Having a mix of the two is safer," she said. 

I-Jobs granted the organization $1.25 million to spend on renovations, and a number of banks provided $3 million in low-interest loans to fund the project.

By selling the homes to long-term inhabitants, UniverCity officials said, they're continuing to work toward neighborhoods with a 50/50 split between renters and owners.

"It's more about providing people with more choices," Long said. "There are people who want to live close to campus."

To attract residents who work near campus or for the UI, UniverCity sells the homes at a reduced rate. In addition, $50,000 — money that went to recent renovations for bathrooms, wiring, and appliances — will be forgiven if the occupant stays in the house for several years.

The program sets maximum incomes for interested buyers. For example, while the maximum income for a household of one to two people is $62,240, the maximum for a seven-person household is $77,200.

"It's important to have different types of housing," said Rebecca Raab, a second-year UI graduate student in the School of Urban and Regional Planning. "It's a big quality of life to live near work [for university employees]."

But despite recent renovations, convenient locations, low costs, and a low interest rate, UniverCity has to deal with the reality of buyers' perceptions of life in a college town. Many expect loud, college-age neighbors, officials said.

However, Walz said that stereotype shouldn't scare buyers away.

"People who move into the neighborhoods are going to have to understand it's a mixed neighborhood," she said.

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