Assessment: ‘Housing crisis’ apparent in Dubuque

Low supply and exceptional demand are creating a severe housing crunch in Dubuque, according to a recent community assessment.

East Central Intergovernmental Association completed the Dubuque Housing Needs Assessment in April. Local officials hope to use the data to designate the city as a “distressed housing community” for development and tax-incentive purposes.

“We know we have a housing crisis in Dubuque, and (the survey) just supports what we knew,” said Rick Dickinson, president and CEO of Greater Dubuque Development Corp., which paid for the survey. “It gave us some data to back it up.”

The survey outlined a sustained need for workforce development housing, which is defined as housing that is both affordable for workers and close to their jobs.

Over the past three years, houses in Dubuque spent an average of just 30 days on the market before selling, indicating a high demand in the area. The survey also outlined a decrease in the development of single-family homes and a large increase in the cost of housing.

“The information in the report sort of speaks for itself,” said Dan Fox, senior planner at ECIA. “A need for more housing within Dubuque was the main takeaway.”

In addition to the high demand for housing, unemployment also has declined in Dubuque. According to the report, this indicates a sustained demand for jobs in the area and places for these workers to live.

“Increased housing would allow us to grow as a community,” said Ian Hatch, assistant director of economic development for the City of Dubuque. “Generally speaking, you can try to attract new workers to the community, … but you have to have somewhere to put those workers.”

The city also has an extremely low vacancy rate, which indicates the number of empty homes or rentals. On average, the survey showed only 0.9% of homes were vacant in 2018 and only 0.5% were in 2019 and 2020, and around 1.3% of rentals were available in 2021.

“(But) not only do we have a very low vacancy rate, much of what is vacant is not livable,” Dickinson added, referring to old or deteriorating homes.

The report notes that 33% of Dubuque’s housing units are occupied by renters — 7 percentage points higher than the state average.

More than 60% of Dubuque’s housing stock was built before 1970, when the city’s population was growing. When the population rapidly declined in the 1980s, so did construction.

From 1976 to 1990, the city’s population declined by 10% and unemployment rates hit as high as 23%.

“Because of the lack of opportunities … Dubuque was decimated,” Dickinson said. “Unless we expand housing and continue to maintain the regional economy, we could repeat the late 1970s and 1980s again.”

The housing assessment was completed to seek the distressed housing designation under the Workforce Housing Tax Incentive Program.

The program, offered through Iowa Economic Development Authority, allows builders and developers to apply for tax credits toward new construction of workforce housing on greenfield or undeveloped sites.

The city now will submit the information to the state, as well as provide the findings to local developers who are applying for state aid.

“Every community needs to look to remove financial and regulatory barriers to residential construction in Iowa, the Midwest and Dubuque in particular,” Dickinson said. “We’re looking to crank up development of additional properties, and one of the things available is (this) program.”