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D.M. zoning commission refuses to endorse minimum sizes for new houses


The Des Moines Plan and Zoning Commission Thursday sent a new citywide zoning code to the City Council without recommending minimum sizes for newly built houses.

The minimum house size requirements sparked an outcry among homebuilders and affordable housing advocates who said the standards would drive up the cost of a new house and be unaffordable for moderate-income families.

The proposed minimum house size requirements are too restrictive, Commissioner Francis Boggus said. “I think we need to be flexible and creative. You have to remember that this country has always developed a housing philosophy to adopt housing to the economic standards. …There were a lot of times, based on the economic status of the country, housing had to be adjustable.

“I would oppose any motion [for minimum standards] that would hollow out a middle-class people who are firefighters, teachers and workers in private industry from being able to afford a first-time house.”

City staff, elected officials and community members have worked for more than five years on rewriting the current code, which was put in place in the 1960s and has been updated more than 300 times. About two years ago, a first draft of the rewritten code was released and received hundreds of complaints and suggestions for changes. Staff and others reviewed the comments, reworked the zoning code and rereleased it this spring with numerous changes and additions, including minimum standards for new houses in Des Moines. In addition to setting minimum sizes, the standards included requiring houses to have a full basement and a garage.

A consultant recommended that the standards be included after a review showed housing values were not appreciating at the same rate as those in neighboring communities and that houses were not available in Des Moines for people looking to move out of starter homes, said Mike Ludwig, Des Moines’ planning administrator.

Last week, three Des Moines City Council members and a steering committee recommended less restrictive standards that city staff included in their recommendation to the commission. Along with an across-the-board cut to the minimum size standards, the committee recommended eliminating the requirement for full basements in new houses.

The average size of a house in Des Moines is 1,253 square feet, 27% less than in surrounding communities, Ludwig told the commission. The average sale price of a house in Des Moines is $133,000, he said. 

“This code will not solve the affordable housing issue; nor will the city by building just single-family residential,” Ludwig said. 

The commission, on a 14-0 vote, approved the proposed new code without setting minimum size requirements for new houses.

City Manager Scott Sanders, after the meeting, said it was too soon to know what he and city staff will recommend to the City Council regarding minimum house size requirements.

“My main concern is greenfield development that may have one product that may be the smallest of size,” he said. “I’ll talk with staff about how our recommendation might address that.”

The City Council is expected to have its first public hearing on the new zoning code Sept. 9.

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