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DSM City Council Looks To Tackle Next Big Housing Issue

The third and final reading of the new, controversial Des Moines zoning code was approved Wednesday by the Des Moines City Council while a few focus surrounding a potential housing project surfaced Monday at a Council meeting.

The code, which sparked debate over housing affordability and other design standards in the city, was pushed forward under conditions that amendments to address stakeholder concerns would be added to the legislation.

Now, local elected officials and housing advocates want to focus on other housing disputes, like Monday’s proposal of a small rezoning project in Woodland Heights facing resistance from neighbors over the potential for added density and subsequent parking issues.

“The zoning code, one way or another is not what is going to solve our affordable housing issues. It’s the broader set of actions and the planning that we need to do as a community,” District 3 Councilmember Josh Mandelbaum said. “Some of the most important decisions are happening outside of the zoning code. And we need advocates to step up in those conversations.”

At the meeting on Monday, Rally Cap Properties owner Ryan Francois told the council he wanted to build seven rowhomes on a vacant lot near Ingersoll Avenue, on High Street between 23rd and 24th streets.

Francois’ new rowhomes would sell for $275,000 to $300,000, meant for those in the “missing middle”— a group with income too high to require public assistance and in need of properties without the cost and maintenance of a detached single-family home — to afford.

This group, often in need of what is referred to as workforce housing, has also been subject to increased discussion surrounding the city’s proposed zoning code. Currently, only 12% of the owner-occupied housing demand in Des Moines is for homes priced at $350,000 or more, according to Polk County Housing Trust Fund data.

“I think it’s the perfect opportunity for a missing middle housing development project, we’ve heard a lot about these as we go through the larger exercise of revamping our zoning ordinance,” Francois said to the council. “And I challenge you to look to the future of Des Moines and what the best use of this land is. In my opinion, there is unmet demand in our city for this product type.”

Neighbors of the proposed project told the Council the plans don’t fit into the neighborhood’s current plan, created in 2013. The “seven to 14” more vehicles from the added residents would create parking and traffic concerns along High Street, they said.

Leann Stubbs, a resident of the Woodland Heights neighborhood, said she had been investing in her property “quickly as she can afford to” and that the rezoning exemption would “not fit with the [current] neighborhood plan.”

“The city has supported this plan, and in good faith, I have invested in 2611 High street,” Stubbs said. “Woodland Heights has a ton of density — duplexes and fourplexes. We’re the poster child for a neighborhood with the missing middle. I’m asking you to not rezone.”

The project would require a zoning exemption from low-density residential to multifamily residential. A move to continue the proposal’s hearing on Nov. 18 was unanimously passed by the council, in hopes that conversations between Francois and Woodland Heights neighbors be had about parking and a more comprehensive site-plan.

“The whole idea of the missing middle is how you transition from larger multi-family to single-family. Both of which can be very unaffordable to a lot of our city,” at-large City Councilmember Chris Coleman said. “We’re passing a zoning code where one of its intentions is to create properties like this. These are solutions that our community needs.”

Monday’s council meeting was also meant to include a final vote on the last of three readings of the zoning code, though it was pushed forward for approval at Wednesday’s day-long city strategy meeting. Several council members said they wanted to wait until stakeholders were present later in the week to make any sort of moves to push the contended code through.

At previous council meetings with discussion of the zoning code, local housing developers like Habitat for Humanity expressed concern over the new code’s minimum footage requirements and their ability to gain exemptions for the speedy building of affordable housing options.

Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity President and Executive Director Lance Henning said the passing of the code, with added amendments, is a lot less restrictive from the originally proposed code but would prefer to keep current requirement standards.

“We’re glad they’re talking about the added changes,” Henning said. “Ultimately, we’d prefer what we’re already doing. [The new code is] closer to what makes sense for Des Moines.”

The new code goes into effect on Dec. 15, with amendments set to be heard before implementation.

Councilmember Mandelbaum said attention on the zoning code should now be switched over to projects like the potential rowhome project in Woodland Heights.

“If we spend more time litigating the zoning code, that’s time we’re spending not actually working where there is potential for agreement and potential for progress on affordable housing,” Mendelbaum said. “[The row homes off of Ingersoll project] has gotten really controversial, but that’s a place where the affordable voice should be stepping up.”

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