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Exclusive: D.M. council members propose code changes to appease affordable housing advocates; P&Z meets tonight


Three Des Moines City Council members, in an effort to find middle ground in a controversy over proposed minimum sizes for new houses, have developed guidelines they hope will quell homebuilders’ and others’ concerns that the city is turning its back on affordable housing.

The proposal from council members Chris Coleman, Joe Gatto and Linda Westergaard calls for houses built on infill lots in the city and some parts of northeast Des Moines to have minimum sizes that are between 10% and 17% smaller than what is now proposed in the new zoning code that will be used to guide future land use decisions and new capital projects. 

The council members provided a copy of their proposal to the Des Moines Business Record. City staff members were unavailable to comment on the proposal, according to a city spokesman.

The new zoning code, which is scheduled to be voted on today by the Plan and Zoning Commission, includes development guidelines for single-family houses, including setting minimum house sizes and requiring full basements and single-vehicle garages.

Several homebuilders say complying with the proposed guidelines will boost the cost of new home construction, putting new houses out of the reach of moderate-income buyers.

“Without homebuilders, the city cannot grow,” Coleman said. “We need to listen and respect their opinion. But we also need to have houses in the city that grow in value.

“This [proposal] is a compromise.”

The proposal developed by Coleman, Gatto and Westergaard was shared with a steering committee and is being reviewed by city staff, who haven’t released new recommendations regarding house sizes to the public or the commission, which meets at 6 p.m. today.

Des Moines-area homebuilders and affordable housing advocates have been outspoken in their opposition to the minimum house-size requirements and other development standards included in the proposed new zoning code. The code would replace the city’s current zoning code, which was written in the 1960s and has been updated more than 300 times.

Homebuilders and others say that, if adopted, the requirements would boost the cost of a new home by $10,000 to $70,000, depending on the house style.

A recent study showed that the Des Moines area will need 16,500 newly constructed houses priced below $175,000 in the next two decades to house workers paid low- and moderate-income wages, a segment of the workforce that is expected to grow significantly. That need won’t be met if the requirements in the code are adopted, homebuilders have said. Some homebuilders, including those with Savannah Homes, Kading and Destiny Homes, said they would be unlikely to build in Des Moines if the standard is adopted.

City officials and others, however, have said Des Moines’ existing housing stock is affordably priced.

“This code provides many more opportunities to building affordable housing in the city than is currently the case,” said Larry James Jr., a Des Moines attorney and member of the steering committee. The code encourages the construction of duplexes and other smaller, multifamily structures as well the construction of accessory dwelling units to be built in some residential areas.

“What this code and the city is trying to do is that there are certain standards everyone should be expected to meet,” James said. “Once the city spends money on infrastructure, they have to be sure that whatever is built as the result of the expenditure ultimately pays for itself.”

Under the proposal from Coleman, Gatto and Westergaard, the city’s zoning code would have two standards for the construction of new houses. One standard would be in areas proposed to be zoned NX2, a mix of varying styles of single-family houses. That zoning is located mostly in the northwest and southern parts of Des Moines.

Development requirements in NX2 zones would be the same as what the new code proposes, including requiring new houses to have full basements and single-vehicle garages and have minimum sizes that range from 1,400 square feet to 1,800 square feet, depending on the house style. 

The second standard proposed by the three council members would cover the rest of the city and include infill lots and large tracts found mostly in northeast Des Moines. The size requirements for newly built houses would range from 1,250 square feet to 1,500 square feet, depending on style. In addition, houses would be required to have either a garage or basement. Houses that include both could be reduced in size by 100 square feet, according to their proposal.

No house built in the city could be less than 1,050 square feet, under the proposal. The proposal also reduces the amount of discretion city staff would have to allow for variances in house sizes. Staff members could allow houses to be up to 15% smaller than the code allows; under the current proposal, staff could allow houses to be up to 30% smaller.

“We need these smaller house sizes or we’re going to be pushing people out of the city,” Westergaard said.

Coleman said he’s hopeful the council members’ proposal spurs more redevelopment in existing neighborhoods, including building houses on vacant lots and rehabilitating existing houses. “I’d like to see homebuilders turn to rehab and projects that create affordable housing for our families,” he said.

The Plan and Zoning Commission meets at 6 p.m. today at the Richard A. Clark Municipal Service Center, 1551 East Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

For more information about the city’s proposed zoning code, go to plandsm.dmgov.org.

Read more about affordable housing in D.M. and the proposed zoning code

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