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Feedback sought on rental property zoning

NORTH LIBERTY— The North Liberty City Council is currently considering amending its zoning ordinance to address changes in state law that affect its ability to limit rental units based on family units. The council would like public feedback—from landlords, tenants and other community members—about how to address the issue. Feedback submitted with the form will be shared with city officials as they shape a zoning ordinance amendment in the coming weeks.

The issue

The method most cities use to control density within zoning districts is limiting occupancy of each dwelling unit to one family consisting of people related by blood or marriage, plus up to only one unrelated individual in North Liberty’s case. A new State Code provision sponsored by rental housing owners, effective Jan. 1, prohibits cities from using this practice for rental units; if no other regulations are adopted to replace the family-based limitations, many of the common practices and concepts regarding housing types, densities and zoning districts will become meaningless because almost any number of people will be allowed to inhabit any rental dwelling unit. About 12.5 percent of all units in North Liberty are currently rentals (995).
The form to submit feedback is available at northlibertyiowa.org.

Worst-case do-nothing scenarios – in general

• Because rental profits may increase considerably by renting the same units to greater numbers of people, North Liberty can expect to see:
• Greater density of adults, especially where the city already have higher densities. For example, a single 12-unit rental building can now legally house 24 unrelated individuals at most, but if no amendments are made to the city’s code, that number could legally be as high as 140 (there is a very low person-per-square-foot standard that’s part of the building code and would still apply). The number of adults in rental houses within single-family neighborhoods will be unrestricted if no amendments are made; the number of adults in neighborhoods would have no maximum. Certainly the absolute numbers will be limited because most of the homes will not be converted to rentals, but there will be very real pressure in the market to convert more homes to rentals.
• Likely increase in number of units converted to rentals, because it will be more profitable.
• Likely increase in single-family and higher-value conversions to rentals because more rents can be collected for each unit. These economics largely contributed to the decimation of neighborhoods of large old homes in many larger cities.
• Increased problems with on-street and off-street parking. The city’s current off-street parking requirements assume an average of 2.2 persons per unit, and parking lots are sized accordingly. If the numbers of adults per unit increases, there will almost certainly be more cars parked on streets if available, and other places if not.
• Increasing nuisance complaints and less family-friendly neighborhoods.
• Lowering property values due to rental upkeep standards being generally lower than owner-occupied upkeep.

Other metro cities

Other cities in Iowa are taking similar measures to protect their neighborhoods.

Potential means to keep roughly the current standards

Because cities, residents and property owners have all become used to the “family” standard for determining occupancy, any new system is bound to be more complicated and have downsides. Unfortunately, there is no way North Liberty can think of to maintain exactly the same regulations without using the same terminology. So the goal is to enact only enough new rules to approximate the current densities of residents found in North Liberty, and to potentially impact the fewest residents and rental property owners.
To do that, the city proposes to adopt all of the following standards, to be met in place of family relationships, for rental units only:
• Number of adults (over 18) per gross square feet of rental unit (under 18 not limited).
Proposal: Up to three adults in dwelling units up to 800 square feet in size. Up to five adults in dwelling units over 800 square feet in size. This provides opportunity for a couple plus another adult or three unrelated adults to live together in a very small unit, and accommodates large families with adult children or siblings in larger units, but limits dorm-style living by capping the total adult count per unit.
• Number of adults (over 18) per bedroom in each rental unit.
Proposal: Not more than two adults per bedroom in all units (under 18 not limited).
• Number of resident vehicles per rental unit.
Proposal: Up to a four resident vehicles per unit, but also subject to off-street parking requirements such as size, location on the lot, driveway width, home occupations, etc. This proposal provides flexibility for those households with more than two vehicles due to adult children living at home, multiple adults in the home or simply preference, while providing a ceiling to control extreme cases. If this is pursued, the city will need to refine it through definitions and additional language.
• Number of off-street parking spaces available per rental unit.
Proposal: Provide enough parking spaces on the property to park all resident vehicles in spaces that meet code requirements for size, location, surfacing, etc. This regulation provides one of the stronger disincentives to convert existing units to dormitory-style housing because there is seldom room on existing lots to pave significantly more parking. This provision does not prohibit on-street parking, but makes it less likely to cause problems.