Round one of a battle between landlords and cities went to the landlords. During a legislative subcommittee meeting last week, property owners told lawmakers that cities are passing ordinances limiting the number of unrelated people who can live together in dwellings designed to be single family homes. Kelli Excell is with a leading property management firm in Ames. “We have had a problem and it’s being adopted throughout more and more cities throughout Iowa, to my knowledge, Waterloo, Iowa City, Ames, Davenport,” Excell says. She says property owners should be able to rent out their dwellings as they please within some reasonable limits.
Some of the strongest supporters of the restrictive ordinances are from college towns, including Representative Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, a Democrat from Ames. “Who will have an advantage from passing this billI? It is landlords who will make a larger profit,” according to Wessel-Kroeschell. She lives in a neighborhood of older homes near the I-S-U campus. Wessel-Kroeschell says many college students don’t mind sleeping in basements or in dining rooms or doubling up in bedrroms if they can live with their friends. “But what happens to our neighborhood when this happens? We see couches molding on sagging porches, our lawns are littered with beer bottles, and those lawns are turned into parking lots,” Wessel-Kroeschel says.
Or things can be worse if the lawns become a place for drunken college students to urinate or vomit as they stagger home from parties. Homeowners complain of a threat to property values. Cities have geared up to stop the bill. David Adelman is with the Metropolitan Coalition, representing the state’s ten largest cities. He says they oppose the legislation and support the majority opinion of the Iowa Supreme court which ruled in favor of the city of Ames, when the Ames Rental Property Association sued to get the ordinance thrown out. Justices concluded that keeping single family neighborhoods single family is a legitimate government interest. A minority opinion asserted it’s irrational to say a family of any size can live in a home, but only three unrelated people can. Republicans call it government overreach. And they have an ally with Marty Ryan, a one-time lobbyist for the A-C-L-U.
“We’re okay with the government knowing approximately how many people can live in a building. We’re not okay with the government knowing who lives in a particular building,” Ryan says. “To me that is a very scary thought.” The landlords argue that in the current economy some homeowners are just trying to avoid foreclosure by taking in renters. And they accuse the other side of elitism. The neighborhood advocates say they’re trying to protect middle-income homeowners with little political influence. The bill sailed through a House committee. Only four Democrats voted against it, two of them from college towns. One clinching argument came from Mount Pleasant Republican David Heaton. He once shared a house in Des Moines with three other Republican lawmakers during the legislative session.
“We lived on the south side, but the way the law reads in West Des Moines right now, those four legislators who wanted to live together and rent a house would not be able to do so,” according to Heaton. “I think we need to leave it up to the landlord to make those decisions.” Advocates for the neighborhoods say four legislators is one thing, four frat boys is another. The bill now goes to the full House for debate.