Guest Columnists

Remove housing restrictions

Urban development is not known as one of the sexier aspects of public policy. More than once, I’ve known planning and zoning commissions to be the butt of snarky jokes about boring government meetings.

Still, development is a major discussion point in the Corridor’s growing communities. It’s one of the few issues where local governments still wield a great deal of influence over our daily lives. Itimpacts our every waking moment — dictates the way we live, work, shop, and play.

The field seems to trend toward more government interference in the market. After all, it’s called urban “planning,” not urban freedom or urban individualism.

In the Iowa Legislature, this year, House File 134 is an refreshing exception to that trend. The bill would remove cities’ power to restrict a rental home’s capacity based on the renters’ familial status.

Where I live, in Iowa City, the government uses that restriction in an attempt to prevent large groups of college-age people from living together in so-called “party houses.” Organizations lobbying against the bill include the City of Iowa City, the City of Cedar Rapids, and groups that represent local governments. Organizations lobbying for the bill include real civil liberties groups and organizations representing landlords.

It’s not a clear-cut issue for conservatives and libertarians, who support local control but detest regulation. Even if it’s philosophically murky, though, the practical impact is clear — local government regulations contribute to Iowa City’s notoriously pricey rental market.

Rent prices are a reflection of market supply. Iowa City real estate analyst Casey Cook reports the local rental vacancy rate has been below 4 percent for the past decade, while a healthy vacancy rate is 5 to 6 percent.


I know from personal experience what a low vacancy rate is like for a renter with a limited budget. If you want to live near downtown or the University of Iowa campus, choices are few and you have to sign a lease months before move-in. Finding a suitable home outside of the August-July renting cycle is nearly impossible.

Iowa City is a landlord’s market. Owners can keep their units full, even without containing prices or offering better service. Young renters are forced to either pay a premium price, move far away from campus and downtown, or violate the occupancy restriction. (as long as rent checks keep coming in, many landlords are happy to look the other way).

I’m arguing that young people are people, too, and we need affordable places to live. We vote, we pay taxes, and we’re subject to laws and regulations.

Allowing renters to “double-up” has two important benefits. Directly, it cuts those renters’ housing costs nearly in half, thereby giving individuals more options. Indirectly, it eases market demand by taking two apartment-seekers off the marketing, while only occupying one space.

Regulators and their advocates fear doing away with the occupancy restrictions will give birth to unofficial frat houses. in quiet residential neighborhoods. The reality is that we already have laws and ordinances to regulate nuisance properties and they happen to be much easier to enforce than occupancy limits.

To contain rent costs, Iowa City needs more places for people to live. House File 134 can help do that, no construction required.

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