a photo of construction on a home in Des Moines, Iowa
Construction on a home in Des Moines, where new zoning rules that mandate building materials, garages, and other features could increase construction costs. Charlie Neibergall/AP

In Des Moines, Iowa, zoning rules regulating lot size, housing styles, and building materials will make new homes too expensive, builders warn.

Updated: August 05, 2019

Last December, Minneapolis passed an ambitious plan to increase the housing density allowed across the city. Since then, similar “upzoning” proposals appear to be popping up everywhere. Austin and Seattle both passed laws that let the air out of their restrictive zoning codes. California narrowly missed with a bill to enable more housing construction near transit and in neighborhoods with single-family homes, but Oregon got the job done earlier this summer, passing the nation’s first statewide law doing away with single-family zoning.

With all these housing density trends pointing upward, downzoning—or changes to codes and laws that encourage sprawlier development—would appear to be on its way out. If that’s true, Des Moines never got the memo. Whereas Minneapolis 2040 encourages the construction of duplex and threeplex homes and apartments, the Des Moines 2040 calls for changes that local homebuilders say would make it harder to build.

Under new changes to the zoning code recommended by the zoning commission, most homes built in Des Moines will be required to have a full basement, a single-car garage, and a driveway. Minimum lot sizes for single-family houses will range from 7,500 to 10,000 square feet. Building codes meant to guarantee residents’ safety will now decree their comfort. The new codes list the required sizes for high pitched roofs, broad front-facing windows, and front and back yards. The rules detail what materials builders can (and cannot) use to construct houses, setting a strict and spendy vision for the future of Des Moines development.

On Monday, CityLab spoke to the city’s planning administrator, Michael Ludwig, who says that the new code is designed to urge developers to build products that aren’t available in abundance in Des Moines—namely, the houses that residents are instead buying in the suburbs. Other aspects of the code will support affordability, including accessory dwelling units, which the city is legalizing in limited areas for the first time. Duplexes will be possible in some single-family neighborhoods, too, something that Ludwig says that he hopes to see expand over time. Multifamily housing won’t be possible over most of the city, but it will be easier to build along mixed-use corridors near transit. “Our developers in Des Moines rarely build to the density allowed by the code,” Ludwig says.

Still, until a late change at a zoning commission hearing* on Thursday evening, city planners had even hoped to set a minimum house size of 1,400 square feet—a baseline larger than many homes under construction in Des Moines today. (And much bigger than the average American home size in 1950). Facing criticism from builders, the city zoning commission dropped this provision for mandatory McMansions. But homes in Des Moines still look to grow far more expensive, and exclusionary, under the plans being weighed, builders argue.

“Houses being built today in Des Moines would not be built tomorrow based on [the city’s proposed] minimum square footage requirements, garage, and basement requirements,” said Eric Webster, general manager for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, during a panel in July. The zoning commission recommended two of those three changes, and many more.

The draft future land use map for Des Moines makes accessory dwelling units legal in limited areas for the first time, but it preserves single-family zoning for much of the city. (PlanDSM)

The minimum square footage rule generated the most heat going into Thursday’s meeting. And for good reason: It’s an unusual and maybe unprecedented zoning change for a city of this size. Had this regulation passed, Habitat for Humanity, a prolific builder of affordable homes that is one of Des Moines’s biggest “permit pullers,” would have had to change the way that they build entirely, according to Brandon Patterson of the Home Builders Association of Des Moines. (Most Habitat houses are about 1,100 square feet.)

While that rule is off the table, several more items on the Des Moines wish list establish what an ideal neighborhood will look like. Some residential zones would require new homes to be ranchers or split-level houses—low-density styles popular in the auto-centric suburbs of the 1950s. Anti-modern architectural style is given weight throughout the 296-page zoning program. It advises strict preservationist standards—not for historic homes, but for new construction. The document outlines one residential zone as “intended to preserve the scale and character of neighborhoods developed with a mix of bungalow and two-story houses, predominantly in the Victorian Revival, and Arts and Crafts styles.”

In some areas, only brick or stone cottages would be allowed. The new rules outline precise limits for every conceivable type of building material, from glass blocks to terra cotta tiles. Even absent the minimum house size standard, the new construction codes could drive home prices upward of $300,000, builders have warned. That price level is than double the median home value in the city; even in Westwood, an exclusive Des Moines neighborhood, the median home value is $258,000.

“Anybody making under $90,000 annual income will not be able to afford these homes,” Patterson says.

Ludwig says that the new regulation, which goes up before the city council next, is the city’s first effort to pass a new form-based building code in more than 50 years. Over time, the code has built up its share of wrinkles and contradictions. For example, the new zone would restrict multifamily apartment buildings that were sometimes built “in neighborhoods where they weren’t compatible,” he says. In a few areas, though, multifamily will be permitted as by right construction, if the zoning code passes.

By streamlining the zoning and building code, the city hopes to encourage larger homes, especially through in-fill construction, in order to compete with the suburbs. The average home size in Des Moines is 30 percent less in the greater Des Moines area, and those homes cost less as well (on average $100,000 less). For the city, expensive and even prohibitive to provide infrastructure and services to low-density neighborhoods.

“Historically, Des Moines has been hesitant to adopt more progressive strategies,” Ludwig says. “We believe we need to have good examples to point to.”

Rather than upzone the vast majority of the city, Des Moines put a carrot into the zoning code to try to change the housing market. Developers who meet a “higher bar” for construction can proceed without neighborhood approvals. Ludwig says that developers have “hijacked” the hearing process to complain about the new standards, but they’re still free to propose something else and take it up with the people of Des Moines. “The balance was coming up with a code that had particular standards, and in exchange for meeting those standards, a quicker approval process,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they can’t propose something different from the code. There’s still a public hearing track.”

Des Moines is not alone in trying to use design standards to achieve zoning goals. City leaders in Georgia, Indiana, and other states have proposed similar tactics, usually to exclusionary ends. In March, Arkansas passed a state law prohibiting cities and counties from regulating the appearance of new homes using codes based on size, architectural style, or building materials. Texas passed such a law in June. A similar bill in Oklahoma failed during the last legislative session after mayors pushed back, though it is likely to come up again. Des Moines is the biggest city yet to try to pass restrictive ordinances on the appearance of homes.  

Officials maintain that the proposed zoning changes, part of the city’s larger PlanDSM effort, will bring down costs by streamlining the construction permitting process, according to the Des Moines Register. Homes with higher values would benefit the city: Some 40 percent of property in Des Moines, the state capital, is tax exempt, so higher property valuations would boost property tax receipts.

Yet homes with attached garages, full basements, and larger lots may be pricier than Des Moines residents can afford (with more expensive upkeep to boot). Nearly 58,000 households in the greater Des Moines area—and some 40 percent of renters—are cost burdened, meaning they spend one-third or more of their income on rent. According to a recent study on the region’s workforce needs, Polk County must add more than 57,000 net new housing units over the next two decades.

Downzoning isn’t designed to accommodate this kind of change. Or rather, downzoning is a way to plan for growth on the horizon by keeping it at bay.

“The focus is really on our existing neighborhoods and how we allow for construction to occur in those neighborhoods,” City Manager Scott Sanders told the Register. “So what would be acceptable—put yourself in your own home—for your neighbor if there was an empty lot next to you? What would be the minimums in terms of the quality and mix of products that you would find acceptable and that respects the existing neighborhood’s design?”

The questions before Des Moines leaders extend beyond affordability. Inclusivity is another (unstated) concern. Iowa is undergoing a sea change: Between 2000 and 2018, the state’s Latinx population increased by 130 percent, or 107,345 residents. Nowhere is that growth greater than in Polk County, which accounts for more than one-fifth of the state’s Latinx population, according to the State Data Center of Iowa.

Of course, the proposed zoning code doesn’t mention race, immigration, or demographic changes. (Those factors are front-and-center in the Minneapolis 2040 plan.) In Iowa, Latinos and Latinas are more likely to be renters, experience a higher rate of poverty, and earn lower median incomes. Developers looking to build the kinds of homes these Iowans want might build cheaper first-time starter homes or multi-family rental apartments. Zoning codes that proscribe these home types in favor of larger and more expensive homes would prove to be an effective means of keeping these residents out.

By micromanaging building materials, Des Moines city planners can effectively outlaw certain kinds of building construction. One of the materials that comes up for special consideration under the new Des Moines rules is vinyl siding. Its use would be limited to soffits and window trim—and it would be allowable only for single-family homes. Such restrictions would limit its popular application as a facade material for apartment buildings. This, Patterson says, reflects a “stigma” associated with the lower-cost material.

“From a workforce development side,” he says, “[the zoning rules are] eliminating a class of people by putting these rules on square footage and types of material.”

Enshrining into law the exact percentage of facade that can be built with stucco across entire neighborhoods is a homeowner-association president’s fever dream. Planners in Des Moines are making that every incumbent homeowner’s right. With housing insecurity rising nationwide, city planning commissioners elsewhere are setting their sights on targets like preserving existing affordable housing or encouraging transit-accessible residential development.

Des Moines faces these considerable housing challenges, too, from a shortage of homes for working-class households to concentrated vacancy. A zoning code that doesn’t anticipate these needs looks less like a document for managing growth than a plan for preserving the status quo.

*CORRECTION: The August 1 hearing mentioned in the story was a meeting of the planning and zoning commission, not the city council. This story has also been updated to incorporate comments from the city.

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