Kate Dunning

  • Nick,
    I serve on the Housing Task Force, the Planning and Zoning Commission, live downtown and am a business owner with an office downtown. I’m writing to reply to your points and add some information for readers. Thank you for your examination and post.

    At tonight’s 7pm City Council meeting, I believe the only Housing Task Force recommendation you’ll be presented with is stricter code enforcement. The moratorium and other items follow in future meetings.
    Some background on these recommendations
    As you noted, we sit with a surplus of rentals at this time. This holds across the board in the neighborhoods most affected: downtown and college hill. In a four year period ending in 2012, there were just under 250 conversions of single family homes to rentals. 90% of these occurred in R1 & R2 zones. UNI is adding supply and many multi-unit complexes just off campus are underutilized, as you said. There is supply, yet there is also a disproportionate conversion of single family homes in spite of this already abundant supply and this is the issue.

    Why is this happening?
    1. Single family home prices and availability, age of homes (most homes in this area of town were built with a one-car garage, on smaller lots and on streets that are 31 feet wide or narrower, not designed for on-street parking to accommodate all 4 renters and their cars with a safe allowance for emergency vehicles). I agree with regarding getting away from car culture, but I think we offering broader solutions here is also necessary.
    2. Landlord rental income. While there’s a surplus of rental options on and just off campus via the multi-unit complexes, landlords are buying (again 250 conversions in 4 years) single family homes and making them into rentals because they are profitable. And the more kids they are able to fit into a property, the more profitable. The State Landlord Association has tried in years’ past to get the legislature to pass a law to raise the maximum unrelated persons allowed in a rental. Currently that number is 4. Last I read, this was being pursued again. The president of the association is a local landlord and attends nearly all of our Housing Task Force Meetings. He has asked us to consider raising this ceiling in the City. I do not agree with this idea. It is profitable for the landlord, but isn’t a viable solution no matter how it’s sliced.
    3. Property owner inability to sell home resulting in sale to landlord for conversion to rental. This is obvious and is inextricable from 1 and 2 above.
    4. UNI student parent purchases. It’s increasingly popular for parents to take advantage of low interest rates and buy a house, convert it and rent to son/daughter and 3 buddies. Parent-owner may live out of town, albeit likely in Iowa, but if they are out of town, they are required to hire a local ‘property manager’, the likelihood of which could be one item that stricter code enforcement could take on, perhaps. Stricter code enforcement is being recommended to the Council tonight because until recently, health and safety code violations were the focus of code enforcement, in addition to incoming complaints.

    What does ‘stricter code enforcement’ really mean? Why ask City Council to vote for it?
    1. It allows for the use of city resources to enforce minimum property standards vs. just health and safety violations, which are the current focus.
    2. Zoning violations will be targeted.
    3. Maintenance issues (mowing, snow removal, trash) targeted.
    4. On and off street parking issues targeted.

    We are hoping stricter code enforcement is approved.

    You remarked with opposition to the moratorium on conversions. This item will be before City Council on August 4. Moratorium is an ominous word. In this case, it is a 6 month freeze on conversions while the City (assuming approval by Council) dons stricter code enforcement. In an already prolific housing market, issuing a temporary ban or moratorium will decrease options for students and renters, yes, but we’ve established that the market (right now) is flush with options, so of all times this is the best time to do so. Some landlords are not happy with this restriction because it diminishes their business opportunity and any business owner would feel the same. However, business owners invested in their communities and who take proper care of their properties, may be more able to see the forest for the trees. They also see the poorly managed properties downtown and on the Hill and if doing their job well, may be in favor of stricter enforcement and decisions made by the city that encourage responsible ownership. We have many landlords who do fit this criteria, they just may not be as vocal.

    Part of the reason for the moratorium is to control for X (halting conversions) while we study Y (effects of stricter code enforcement) and also present the City Council (sooner than later I’m hoping) with incentive ideas, catered to conversions in the opposite direction: from rentals back to single family homes. We should be able to accomplish all of this in the 6 months that conversions to rentals are held steady in R1 and R2.

    You mentioned a concern regarding this moratorium as a lofty solution aimed at neighborhood balance, worried that with supply down, renters will head to other parts of the city to find available housing. The moratorium is short term, the surplus of housing will not markedly change in the next 6 or 7 months and perhaps now understanding the broader reason for the moratorium, I’m hopeful that this item is also approved by the City Council in coming weeks.

    Regarding Incentives, some of which you mentioned: these are extremely important. City staff has already delved into options on this and as a Task Force, we will be looking closely at these. There are significant shortfalls to the CDBG and HOME Funds options: income restriction for purchaser and maximum sale price limited to $138,700, commitment to occupy for 5 years, etc. For someone to purchase an existing rental property that generates significant rental income and likely at a higher sale value and then convert it to single family residence knowing the income limitations and sale price restrictions are unlikely.
    Per City staff’s analysis of previous rehab projects, it’s estimated that the cost of converting a four-unit rental structure back to a single family home is between $50K – $75K.

    Urban Revitalization and Urban Renewal plans do offer more hopeful options and I’m excited to begin looking at these with the rest of the Housing Task Force soon.

    All told, this isn’t an assessment of renters are bad people. The fact is, this is a College town and we enjoy college town advantages. But the number of conversions, especially in light of availability tells it’s own story: excess. And the reasons are listed above.

    The way to address this particular rental-excess and ‘take down’ of many of the older homes in the historic section of the city, as well as the Hill, is to look at how we got here, examine ideas and determine effectiveness of action: stricter enforcement, short term halt on conversions, best-practice incentives and who knows what else we may be able to come upon…it’s a great time to be able to look at this issue knowing supply is there to meet need, and that sincere efforts to protect neighborhoods and maintain home values is being honored.

    The Task Force is made up of landlords, a UNI Student, UNI employee, realtors, homeowner and myself. Any public support of the protection of the older parts of the city and housing preservation is welcome, as voices in defense of home value is needed.

    Thank you for this forum and your service.
    See you at tonight’s meeting!
    Kate Dunning

  • Nick,
    I appreciate your careful examination of the ordinance ban on single family conversions. Your Rock Island example of neighborhood self-sprung preservation and beautification is laudable and a great example of one avenue toward historic and neighborhood preservation (or re-preservation, in that case). Another avenue is ordinance in tandem with neighborhood advocacy groups, beautification efforts by homeowners, etc. Iowa City offers an example of this pathway. Cedar Falls does as well: the College Hill Overlay and other examples you cited are examples of this.

    I have listened to landlords at multiple meetings explain their opposition to this single family ordinance ban, and one argument they cite is that no families will buy these older homes. I have seen my older neighborhood show otherwise: families are buying (like you stated) and more and more, understanding the value of these homes and in more ways than the dollar: the established landscape, proximity to city offerings, etc.

    So landlord opposition to this ban may be better understood if we consider a parallel issue: The State Landlord Association (which has local landlord leadership represention) proposed a bill to the state legislature last year aimed at prohibiting cities from imposing family size limitations on their rental properties (no more than 4 unrelated persons in one rental property). The proposal went nowhere but will likely be proposed again this legislative session.

    Your keen eye for and insistence on healthy consideration of intended and unintended consequences on quality of life is one of the reasons I voted for you. In this case, I agree with your statement that this city is replete with housing options for renters as it is. And yup, landlords and their role individually and on the greater market are worthy of due diligence. But if we’re able to set aside subjective disdain for regulation or de-regulation and look squarely at protecting exceptional quality of life, one of the three core values you offer us as part of your compass, then I think preserving the treasure and value of these older homes and the neighborhoods rises to the top. Opportunities for landlords to turn a better profit is not as compelling here. And we agree that our renters have ample choice in Cedar Falls.

    Looking forward, more and more families are buying these older homes, as you said. They are doing this, I think, because more understand the bigger picture value of the older neighborhoods – spanning beyond the dollar into quality of life: established landscapes, proximity to city offerings, older home workmanship, etc.

    But if landlords cannot get traction with their proposal to the legislature to lift the 4 unrelated persons law, then we will likely see more profit-driven interest in single family home conversions and the family looking to buy an older home will not be as interested if the home next door has been triplexed, with cement parking slab, rotting exterior fire escape and trash dumpster with pickup at any hour of the day.

    The exceptional quality of life question here may be answering itself.
    Thanks for considering my points.

  • Nick, I like your emphasis on contextual design as the goal. I believe the PZ Commission and CHP embraced the slightly more prescriptive elements (though cautiously) because we were (until this revision to the College Hill ordinance) practicing an informal version of contextual design by which the Commission would look at the feasibility of the developers plans, ask developer for revisions to suit several variables (similar to you visual of the parking lot in the back), critique revisions and hold developer accountable by sending back until all suggestions met. This process is inefficient and frustrating for all. Having standards/form accelerates the process bc it eliminates ambiguity. I think the progress on The Hill demonstrates things are improving and I know you agree. However, I am interested in learning more about contextual approach – do you know of cities that use it? I think the goal for everyone is to nail the most efficient way to uphold efficiency while still upholding creativity.
    Kate Dunning

  • Were the specific reasons Committee tabled the mayoral / city manager discussion the same as the general opposition examples you noted (social dynamic, etc)? Trying to understand, especially given that this was a city staff recommendation.

Kate Dunning
Kate Dunning 122pc