Nick's Council Connection (10 February 2014)

Council Meeting Date: February 10, 2014

Council Meeting Location: City Hall, 220 Clay St, Cedar Falls, IA 50613

Lets talk State Street parking, multi-unit restrictions, and forced conversions.

- Committee of the Whole (5:35pm, Mayor's Conference Room, ELECTRONIC AGENDA)-

State Street Parking - there is a chorus of voices advocating for more parking in downtown Cedar Falls. On the City's part, each time we do major road reconstruction, we try to make an effort to increase parking density. The reconstruction of State Street south of 4th Street will continue this year. The first section shows nice pedestrian accommodation (bump-outs) and increased on-street parking density. For the next section, the city would need to acquire a few feet of right away, certain driveways would need to be reconfigured (or eliminated). Given this, it doesn't appear we will be increasing parking density, which seems unwise given the trajectory of business and new residents in the downtown. On-street accommodation has many benefits:

  • Motorists  prefer on-street parking (especially angled) over parking structures or lots
  • On-street parking maximizes taxable value (buildings versus parking lots)
  • On-street parking calms traffic and creates a safer pedestrian and cycling environment 

I'd prefer we acquire a few feet of property and discuss driveways with property owners so we can increase density. 


-Regular Council Meeting (7:00pm, Council Chamber, ELECTRONIC AGENDA)-

 Special Order of Business

ForceMain.jpgE.1&2) This opens a hearing and offers a resolution for spending $1.1 million on Park Drive Lift Station improvements, mainly 6,500 feet of new 'force main'. The current infrastructure is encumbered during heavy rains and prolonged wet periods. This is one of those underground investments, hard to see, but appreciated by all the bacteria in the treatment plant that eat our sanitary offerings.

E.3&4) This item bans single-family to multi-family home conversions in R1 and R2 zoning areas. To date, one single family home has been converted to multi-unit in the last three years. I can also attest that no less than 3 have been converted back to single family during the same period. Our current regulations for minimum lot size, firewall protection, entrance/egress, parking etc. make conversions in-feasible. So what's the problem here? I've responded to many people on the issue, here is some of the discussion...

The real issue is the proliferation of rental property throughout the city which impacts owner-occupied character of neighborhoods. Rental conversions are a symptom of inadequate planning/zoning for rental demand, mainly around UNI. Our land-use plan does not accommodate much high-density development, the preferred place to 'store' student renters (I'm being purposefully sarcastic, but this seems to be the prevailing mentality). When we updated the land-use plan in 2011, we didn't do an adequate job of inventorying density needs around the University. Case in point is Starbeck Circle which is probably 95% single-family rentals or duplexes. It is still planned for low-density residential. It is marketed to students wishing to live off, but near, campus. It should have been part of a larger density belt allowing larger multi-unit development, it should be planned and zoned for high density. So our land-use plan didn't create a desired density belt. Short of revisiting, now what?

Our policies over the last decade are having a positive impact for neighborhood stabilization. The LandUse.JPGrental market is at a saturation point. UNI continues to add supply and other multi-unit complexes are near completion, rental supply continues to increase. Meanwhile, CF has a number of standards and incentives in place to improve all properties. In the last two years on the Hill... we updated the overlay design standards which addressed many of the concerns in the past two decades. The Urban Revitalization Plan is a tax incentive for re-investment in residential properties. Parking and lot design requirements were also updated. The proliferation of rental housing slowing, might be reversing. This is a function of the market, mainly families seeking out the desirable characteristics of traditional neighborhoods like proximity to new elementary schools, the downtown and UNI. 

If the goal for neighborhood balance (eh, limiting rental units) is a priority, then a full ban or moratorium as recently proposed is a solution, albeit, an unfair one. As demand increases (I think it will as UNI enrollment increases), available supply would decrease. Prices would rise, students would need to live much further away. If we limit rental density based on area, it would cause the encroachment of rentals into other traditionally owner-occupied areas which would exacerbate the issue through the community (this was happening up to 2008). As it relates to the issue of multi-unit conversion... what is better, one duplex or two rental homes? What if the older, large home is no longer marketable as a single family home as families get smaller, while others seek different home amenities found in our sprawling new neighborhoods? 

We need to take a comprehensive look at rentals. And if we are to expend energy, we should focus on areas of greatest return. How about allowing ancillary dwelling structures or multi-unit structures with the caveat that one unit be owner-occupied (as defined by homestead exemption)?  How about reallocating CBDG funds to support low interest loans for owner-occupied, single family conversion?  Couple this with the city-wide Urban Revitalization Plan for a cherry on top (this is already in place, but maybe it needs to be tailored for rental-to-owner-occupied conversion)? If concrete is the concern, why not reduce the on-site parking requirement? Again, the impermeable surface issue is a direct consequence of the regulation! Street parking is OK in my book, this is a college town. Smarter parking and mass transit policies could result in more students parking in out lots or don't use cars at all. Accommodation of the car-culture comes at great expense.
I don't think the conversion ban moves the needle addressing the real problem which is the flight of the owner-occupiers. It is best to error on the side of less regulation than more, especially when it misses the core of the issue.

New Business - Resolution Calendar 

G.2.c) Golf Fees - keeping golf fees cheap, we need to plan to go deeper in debt. From my last post:

I am a skeptic of marketing without a financial plan. 2013 represented a 40% operating deficit. Assuming no increase in cost of operations, some combination of daily play, yearly pass, or concession revenue would need to increase the total by 25%. This is a tall order on a course where coveted tee times are already at capacity. Combined with tournaments and leagues, there aren't enough tee times to go around. I fear this marketing strategy may have a reverse effect; we may end up with lower revenues in 2015 as people drop the sport in frustration or take their game one of many options in the area.

I am also a weekend economist. I think golf demand is relatively inelastic. That is, golfers don't respond to golf price signals. They have golf clubs, time and a general preference based on course challenge and location. I predict we will keep golf rates the same, we will amp up the marketing, play will go down, and our deficit will be over $200,000 this year. The fiscal bloodletting will continue.

Not much more to say on the matter. The stated goal in the last committee meeting was to reduce the deficit from $171,000 to $140,000 thousand, a loose tourniquet.

 -Nick's Briefs-

MyHomeForRent.pngForced Conversions - While our single-family to multi-unit conversion restriction is an misguided attempt to reduce proliferation of rental homes, the most recent ordinance language being considered would convert dozens, maybe hundreds of homes to rentals. How does that feel? I break it down in a separate post: Forced Conversions.



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  • William Witt
    Some good ideas re: rentals studies & possible policy adjustments. I’d start with studying the people and the economics involved. Consider your “flight of the owner-occupiers.” Homeowners aren’t necessarily “fleeing;” many single family dwellings are sold when the owners retire, or die; or when they are transferred to other cities by their employers. Especially in the case of older homes that have been occupied by the same owners for many years, I would expect to find that overall maintenance and upgrades were neglected as the owners grew older. Potential buyers must factor in those additional costs, however they must pay for them through higher-interest home-improvement loans. Or the new buyers may be out-of-town parents of a college student who realize that they can buy a house, ignore home improvements, and make their child a co-owner with a 1% or 2% equity stake in the property. Son or daughter rent bedrooms to friends at $250 or $300 per month per person. Absentee owner-parents have a property that basically pays for itself at $750 to $1,000 or more in monthly rents. Maintenance, repairs and improvements are nil. How many working-class families can compete with those kinds of economics? We need policies that can make these homes more economically attractive to young families (e.g. including costs of needed improvements into the base cost of the mortgage, instead of in a separate, higher cost improvement loan. We also need to define a standard for “owner-occupied,” e.g., to be an “home owner,” the buyer must himself occupy the home for a defined time each year and have at least 51% of the equity.
  • The heat is on in City Hall. Nick's Council Connection is posted.