Staff Columnist

Iowa City defies Legislature, sets up 'swift and vigorous legal challenges'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Monday, Sep. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Monday, Sep. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The Iowa City Council has been bombarded for the past month with public input about its onerous rental property restrictions.

Council members probably hoped this week’s vote — final approval of a 10-month moratorium on new rental permits in certain districts — would offer some relief. To the contrary, their latest move invites new legal and political challenges. This issue is not going away.

Last year, the city imposed a rental permit cap in neighborhoods with a high portion of renters. It was sold to the public with some nebulous verbiage about “neighborhood stability.”

The Iowa Legislature, however, identified that policy as an infringement on the rights of renters and property owners. Lawmakers passed a law banning municipal rental permit caps.

The city’s new moratorium is a response to that law. For the next 10 months, the city will not issue new rental permits in areas most desirable to renters. City staff will use that time to develop a new regulatory regime that mitigates the many problems renters like me supposedly create.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

However, the Greater Iowa City Apartment Association is vowing to file “swift and vigorous legal challenges” against the moratorium.

The association’s lawyer argues the city is defying state law. She noted in a letter to council that not everyone in Iowa City is subject to the rental permit moratorium — it’s only people who own property in districts previously subject to the rental permit cap.

Indeed, the preamble to the moratorium ordinance repeats the 30-percent rental occupancy figure from the rental cap policy that has been outlawed by the state. However, City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes argued at a meeting this month a moratorium is different from a cap.

As the legal process plays out, the political reaction against the City Council may be even swifter.

The rental policy debate has created a peculiar political alliance. The University of Iowa’s staunchly liberal student population and the reliably pro-business real estate community, natural enemies in many situations, both oppose the city’s overbearing restrictions.

The union representing UI graduate students, known as COGS, and the statewide Landlords of Iowa association both sent letters to the City Council this month, delivering strikingly similar critiques of the rental moratorium.

The graduate students complained that the city’s new ordinance will make it more difficult for young academics to find affordable homes near campus.

“Students at the University of Iowa are not a series of problems to ‘solve,’ they are community members just like you and deserve all the rights afforded to other residents of the city,” leaders wrote.

Pete McRoberts, Landlords of Iowa’s executive director, drew from the city’s own wording to demonstrate why the rental restrictions clearly make renters feel unwelcome in the community. The ordinance identifies several purported impacts of rental housing, including “blight” and “risk to public peace and order.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“One doesn’t have to infer motive or judgment here, because it is explicit. This proposal literally tells people who rent homes, ‘Don’t come here. You are the cause of our problems,’” McRoberts wrote.

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

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.