Feds: Dubuque had bias against blacks in housing

DUBUQUE – The city of Dubuque intentionally changed its low-income housing program to make it harder for African-Americans to qualify as a response to public fears about crime, according to a harsh federal review criticizing the city’s history of racial tension.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a letter this week that its review found evidence that Dubuque discriminated against African-Americans in the administration of its Section 8 rental assistance program.

City officials made policy changes starting in 2007 that gave white applicants preference over blacks, at a time when the public was concerned about an “influx” of minorities moving to the predominantly white city, the report said. Racial tensions flared up again in 2009, the report said, and city officials took even more aggressive steps to favor whites over blacks in awarding vouchers.

The city cut the number of vouchers from 1,076 to 900, eliminated a preference for very low-income residents and purged its waiting list of hundreds of applicants, the report found. The changes had the impact of favoring applicants from Dubuque or elsewhere in Iowa, which is 91 percent white, while denying benefits to blacks from Chicago, who had been among the most frequent applicants.

The black population in Dubuque more than tripled from 2000 to 2010, and now amounts to 2,300 residents, or about 4 percent of the population.

City officials say the changes were meant to address funding concerns about the program, and to improve its administration. But the review said it found no evidence to back up those claims, and that the policies “were designed to change the racial composition of the Section 8 waiting list and program admissions.”

“Officials of the City knew the numbers of persons applying to the program from outside of Iowa were from Chicago, and were disproportionately African American, and took the foregoing actions with the intent to limit the ability of these applicants to participate in the program so as to address City residents’ discriminatory perceptions on crime and race,” wrote Betty Bottiger, a regional official with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Her review dug deep into the racial tensions in Dubuque, a city of 58,000 on the Mississippi River often praised for its strong economy and quality of life. She noted that Dubuque was the scene of dozens of cross burnings and other racial incidents from 1989 to 1991 in response to a city plan to boost diversity.