Dan DeGeest’s Council Review, September 17, 2017: Rental Occupancy Law Change

Some described the ongoing conversion of single family homes to rental properties as a steady slide to "student slums"

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Annotating the Council Preview in highlighted text

Hello friends,

The summer is winding down and with it looks like we also say goodbye to reasonably short City Council meetings. On Tuesday we were three hours in and still on the first agenda item, but I really wasn’t surprised. Rental occupancy is a fairly divisive issue and there were many people on hand to provide input, mostly neighborhood representatives in favor of limiting or further regulating rentals in some manner to stop what they state is a huge problem. The discussion was quite frank and many of the speakers had no reservations about framing it as strictly a “student rental” problem, not a problem with rental properties in general. Nobody got up to the lectern and voiced concerns about a house on their street that was being rented to a quiet, tidy, family with kids and a dog. This is squarely about neighborhoods seeing the rapidly increasing conversion of single family homes to rental properties leased to undergraduate Iowa State University students. Some went as far as to describe the problem as a steady slide to “student slums.”

I graduated from ISU the early 1990s and lived in a house on Campus Avenue my last few years. At that time there was still a mix of rental and owner-occupied homes, but even then there were tensions. I loved living there; having a house with a yard was way better than any apartment I had rented. My oldest son now attends ISU and lives in the same house, and that neighborhood looks drastically different. I would guess it is nearly 100 percent student rentals, the street is always fully parked, and you see fairly creative parking of multiple cars in single driveways. In all honesty, it is probably not an inviting neighborhood for someone beyond their college years looking to buy a home and there probably aren’t even any such homes available at this point. Those speaking Tuesday night are fearful of this same outcome in their own neighborhoods.

Previously, this issue was mitigated with a rule stating that no more then three unrelated people could live in an single rental home, but the state has now prohibited that criterion to be used and the fear is this will lead to an increase in the density (four, five, or more students in one home) and an increase in the overall concentration of rental homes in a given block. One example given was a small single family home that was recently torn down and replaced with a six bedroom structure clearly designed to rent to six students, which is bordered on both sides by single family homes.

This is a tough problem and I’m not trying to make light of it, but the reality is that Ames is home to over 36,000 students and they deserve and need place to live. They aren’t some sort of nuisance that should be sequestered off in some corner out of sight and out of mind; they are the reason a large portion of Ames residents live and work here. We enjoy diverse and unique opportunities because of ISU and the student body, both of which are a significant driver of the local economy. I think that was lost on some of representatives who were reminiscing about bygone days when their neighborhood was mostly populated by folks who worked at ISU and not the students who attended and created the need for those jobs.

Without the city’s occupancy rule, the council was faced Tuesday with the task of deciding if and how rental permits and occupancy should be managed in Ames. See below for details and as always, thanks for reading.

Dan DeGEEST>>

Item 22: Motion directing staff regarding regulating occupancy in rental units (Video)

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that this topic is one of the issues to watch this year. This agenda item is the beginning of our response to the state’s recent decision to prohibit limiting rental occupancy based on familial status. Ames, like many college communities, limited rental properties to only three unrelated adults in order to reduce the incentive to convert owner-occupied homes to rental properties. Without it in place, neighborhoods (especially near campus) are concerned about an increase in conversion of owner-occupied homes to rental properties. The council is considering the following actions: increased inspection and nuisance enforcement, limiting the percentage of rental units within a certain area, and incentivizing conversion of rentals back to single-family units. We solicited feedback both from neighborhood representatives and landlords. As you’d imagine, the neighborhood representatives favor limiting the percentage of rentals within an area, in addition to limiting rentals based on number of individuals. (As long as we don’t specify that those individuals be unrelated, we can still limit all rentals to, say, four adults total.) The landlords weren’t crazy about either of those ideas, and would rather we step up enforcement of nuisance and inspections complaints, or limit rental properties to the number of adults per bedroom. (If you rented out a five-bedroom house, for example, you could rent to five adults.)

Motion to create a six month citywide moratorium on all new rental applications passed 5-1 (Corrieri no).

Motion to explore revoking letters of compliance for rentals with multiple infractions passed 6-0.

I personally think the problem comes down to holding landlords and property managers accountable for the condition of their properties and the actions of those they lease to. There are currently two inspectors responsible for over 13,000 properties. Adding another inspector will help with more proactive enforcement of the regulations and property standards. Motion approving $104,000 funding for hiring another full time inspector passed 6-0.

Motion to limit all single family and duplex style rental homes to no more than three students passed 6-0.

Item 23: Campus and Community Commission (Video)

This new commission — C3 as I like to call it — was formed to investigate issues of common interest to Iowa State University and the city. Now that they have convened, they brainstormed topics and are suggesting three priorities: parking in Campustown, a public gathering space in Campustown, and inclusiveness. (Inclusiveness, as expounded on by the commission, includes landlord-tenant relations, “welcoming” and “inclusiveness” of downtown and Campustown, retention of graduates, community connectibility, and Rent Smart Ames utilization.) The council needs to give the go-ahead on these priorities or modify them.

This newly formed group was given a pretty wide net of things to consider and has collectively agreed to focus on parking issues and improvements in Campustown, a public gathering space in Campustown, and the nebulous “inclusiveness.” Stay tuned for future reports on its efforts.

Item 24: Staff report on capital funding for human services agencies (Video)

In February, the council earmarked $500,000 for this capital grant program for human service agencies. Now the council needs to decide some finer points of the program, like the required match percentage, what types of capital equipment are eligible, and minimum and maximum grant amounts. In addition, United Way has expressed interest in partnering with the city and administering the program.

Motion limiting grants to only new construction and renovation projects passed 6-0.

Motion to require a 50 percent cash match (not in-kind matches) passed 6-0.

Motion setting grant amount range from $7,500 to $100,000 passed 5-1 (Corrieri no).

Motion to have the United Way administer the program passed 6-0.


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Dan DeGeest is a software engineer at Ames tech company Workiva and a former candidate for City Council.