Forced Conversion

MyHomeForRent.pngForced Conversions - There's another well-deserved debate brewing about regulatory powers of City Hall. This one is wrapped in all matters of concern from homeowner rights to affordable housing. Should owner-occupied homes be subject to minimum rental housing codes? The following language (in bold) being considered would dramatically change the way people are allowed to live in Cedar Falls: 

"The provisions of this article shall apply... to all buildings or portions thereof... which are non-owner occupied or owner-occupied with tenants paying rent for the living space..."

These words may seem inconsequential, but oh the power! Any study of the intended effect and collateral consequences will lead a thinker to judge it as a gross overreach of local government impairing people and property alike. Some may argue this gives 'renters rights', as if the city is the grantor of such rights and home-owner landlords are the most unscrupulous, evil kind. I've also heard the argument that people are living this way in Cedar Falls as you read. We better call the National Guard, anarchy is the new rule of law in Cedar Falls!

These words regulate the owner-occupied home to a rental. The property will need to be searched (inspected), fees will need to be paid and the home will need to be brought into rental compliance (i.e. calculated parking, minimum toilets & baths, ceiling heights, sprinklers, ventilation, the 'point system', etc.). It will result in higher living costs and diminished living flexibility. 

Up to this point, the city has not regulated owner-occupied homes the same way it regulates rentals. The prevailing wisdom suggests homeowners abide by an acceptable standard of health, welfare and safety for the benefit of their home and its contents - inhabitants and property. For some inexplicable reason, the city must now assume this is no longer true, at least not if a roommate or house guest is present. Perhaps there are horrifying reports in Cedar Falls of homeowner-roommate abuse or ticky tacky parties. Or maybe the city wants to extend its benevolent hand into the lives and voluntary transactions of every Cedar Falls resident (presumably for the benefit of both, or the inspection coffers of the city). Perhaps by extension or by some awful theory, the city is planning to extend its regulatory oversight over all homes, no matter the relationship of the inhabitants. 

Because council members swear to uphold the Constitution, it might be worth considering. The 4th Amendment defines a citizen's right to be secure in their houses, possessions, and effects against unreasonable searches. A rental inspection is a search. Compliance with city-defined standards is a 'regulatory taking' of property rights which is protected in the 5th Amendment ('takings') and 14th Amendment ('due process').

In 2011, I championed a direct family member exemption for the minimum rental housing code. That is, if a property owner wants to rent to a spouse, parent, child, stepchild, father-in-law, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law... the property won't be subject to the city rental standards. Under this new proposal, grandmothers wouldn't be allowed to rent a room to grandkids without converting their home to a rental. If a homeowner wants to rent a room to a visiting professor or college student... yep, they need to convert their property to a rental. Young millennials (yes, I am on the periphery, but can still relate) live differently than we do. Many millennial home-owners rent to their friends to absorb some of the costs of home ownership. If they have a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, they may ask to share the cost with their partner. Under the ordinance, only the fire chief or his/her appointee has god-like powers to issue exemptions. Will friends and lovers be exempt? Will friends need to disclose Facebooks status? Will lovers need to prove their relationship? Seriously, what must one do to get the government exemption?

What happens when we force owner-occupied homes into a rental status? Aside from the searches and minimum rental standard compliance costs above, what about insurance riders and income tax complications? Does some form of bartering constitute a rent payment (i.e. mowing this lawn)? Does a live-in nanny pay an implied rent? Are foster parents' kids treated as renters?

Lawmakers are tasked to evaluate the expressed, implied, and unintentional consequences of regulation. In the case of homeowners and roommates, I suggest we continue to rely on prevailing homeowner assumptions and all the current legal protections granted through the judicial system.

Or maybe we should all accept a universal truth, our stay on earth is all but temporary. Maybe we should just accept the fact that we are all renters and submit to the regulatory power of government. Or maybe we should accept the premise that the law will only affect you when you need to be affected. I hope reason prevails.

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