Staff Columnist

Iowa City hits landlords, renters with more fees

Even as new units are built, City Council action will muddy rental market

Construction is underway on an apartment building at the site of the new Riverfront Crossings development on the northwest corner of U.S. Route 6 and South Gilbert Street in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. The site will eventually include multiple housing units and retail spaces aside a park with walking paths. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Construction is underway on an apartment building at the site of the new Riverfront Crossings development on the northwest corner of U.S. Route 6 and South Gilbert Street in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. The site will eventually include multiple housing units and retail spaces aside a park with walking paths. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowa City is taking yet another step to make life harder for landlords and renters.

The Iowa City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday to increase the frequency of rental inspections from every two years to every year. The measure was approved unanimously as part of the council’s consent agenda, without any discussion from council members, staffers or the public.

Permitting fees paid by property owners to the city are determined by the number of dwellings and bedrooms. A four-bedroom home goes for $218, while a typical three-bedroom 12-plex goes for $693.

The annual inspections will be required for multifamily properties built before 1996, fraternity and sorority houses, and other group housing structures with rental permits. Among more than 4,500 buildings in Iowa City with rental permits, the city expects about 1,300 of them will be subject to annual inspections.

With permit inspections now set to happen twice as often, those costs will effectively double for buildings impacted by the new rule, and I worry they ultimately will be passed on to renters through growing rent prices.

Driving up permit costs is the latest in a series of moves Iowa City leaders have made to flout a 2017 law which banned cities from regulating rental occupancy based on familial status. Architects of the city’s new regulations say they are necessary to prevent large groups from moving in and destabilizing established residential neighborhoods.

“A more robust and frequent inspection cycle is designed to mitigate these concerns in the single-family neighborhoods and verify that non-permitted higher occupancies are not occurring in the already high-occupancy properties,” city staff members wrote in a memo to the council.

I’m skeptical of all the new rental restrictions, as I suspect they will drive the city’s exorbitant rent prices even higher, and also fail to achieve their intended goals.

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Even before the state outlawed municipal restrictions on unrelated roommates, renters found the city’s occupancy limits easy to skirt. I’ve known dozens of Iowa City residents who lived in illegal bedrooms, rearranging them to look like living rooms during city inspections, sometimes with help from the landlord. Renter households exceeding their limits will now be forced into that ritual every year, instead of every two years.

Late last year, the Iowa City Council passed a rule blocking homeowners in some neighborhoods from obtaining new rental permits if 30 percent or more of their neighbors already have permits. Again, such rules restrict the supply of rental housing, which drives up housing prices among people who are already significantly cost-burdened.

I give government leaders and private developers credit for their efforts to increase the availability of housing, including thousands of bedrooms which are newly available or under construction. However, the positive impact is jeopardized by overbearing regulations the council has approved over the past year.

Iowa City already has a reputation as one of the toughest rental markets in the region. More rules won’t help.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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