Iowa lawmakers are taking aim at Iowa City’s new rental housing restrictions.
It’s part of a state-versus-local policy spat dating back to 2017, when the Legislature passed a law to end cities’ practice of regulating rental occupancy by familial status, which college towns had used to restrict where groups of people could live together. In response to the new law, city governments in Iowa City and Ames put forth new rules meant halt the creep of rental housing into established neighborhoods.
Among the cities’ new rules is a cap on the portion of homes in some neighborhoods that can receive rental permits. There are now nine Iowa City neighborhoods, encompassing the most desirable areas for renters, where most homeowners cannot obtain new rental permits.
It’s an affront to housing choice for renters and owners alike. The stated goal of “neighborhood stability” — out of concern for issues like clutter, noise and parking — can be addressed through cities’ existing nuisance property procedures.
So I am glad to see Senate File 447, a bill to ban cities’ rental caps, advance in the Legislature this year.
I have heard supporters of rental caps argue both that too many renters would price families out of neighborhoods, and also that renters’ nuisance violations threaten to drive down their neighbors’ home values. Whether your property value goes up or down, you apparently can blame it on those pesky renters.
Iowa City leaders note several cities in Minnesota have rental caps, yet most those policies are not as belligerent as ours. In Minnesota, towns regulate permits based on a portion of renter households on the same block. In Iowa City and Ames, it is restricted based on large, arbitrary districts the cities draw.
So the house where I live — decidedly young people territory, about a block from the university campus — is regulated as part of the same “neighborhood” as much fancier family homes more than a mile away. We do not live in the same neighborhood, except on paper.
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Since the rental cap makes no distinction between these different corners of an imaginary district, no homeowner on my street can get a new rental permit. They either have to let rooms illegally, or remain owner-occupied.
In fairness, the city has carved out several exceptions, like for duplexes and group homes. It’s a nice gesture, but not a workable policy.
I also give the council credit for approving construction projects in recent years that are increasing the city’s rental housing stock. Nevertheless, we are a growing city with exorbitant rent. People need more options, not fewer.
City leaders complain the state government has no interest in the matter. I contend promoting renters’ and property owners’ rights should be in all policymakers’ interest.
When the City Council approved the rental caps ordinance in 2017, then-state Rep. Zach Nunn, who sponsored the bill to outlaw familial status restrictions, told me it “goes against the original intent of the law.”
If this year’s bill passes and cities again devise ways to sidestep it, expect the same issue to keep coming up in future Legislatures.
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