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To City Council: Be wary of zoning implications

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 22, 2012 6:30 AM

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After a debate on Tuesday, the Iowa City City Council is slated to take up a series of new laws that would make the entire city consistent with one zoning ordinance that places limits on the number of unrelated occupants who can live in a single housing unit.

Though spurred on by massive amounts of support shown at the meeting, the council should tread lightly— their actions are liable to impose very high costs on current and future students.

As the number of students attending college in the United States continues to grow, major universities such as the University of Iowa have become the major benefactors of that growth.

This academic year, the number of students has surpassed 30,000, up from 28,000 in 2000. That number is expected grow.

This has caused some concern among local residents who fear that a growing number of students might begin to push into local neighborhoods, overwhelming permanent residents.

In a number of neighborhoods, residents have complained that the "larger apartments [have] led to excessive parties, noise, and crime."

No doubt, these problems are real. But it would be a mistake to invest in the idea that the issue at the heart of this controversy — rowdy and inconsiderate students — can be solved by a change a zoning law.

Karen Howard, an associate planner with the Iowa City Planning Department, said there is a significant number of students living in the areas being redefined by this redefinition. Though she made it clear all properties containing four or five bedrooms would be "grandfathered in," she also said it made sense for the entire city to be under the same ordinance.

But with the majority of students being concentrated toward campus, it does not make sense that the same ordinance that applies to a house near a cornfield apply to a house near the Pedestrian Mall.

Besides putting a cap on the number of unrelated people in one household, the City Council is considering two other proposals. One would ban the future construction of multifamily living units with more than 3 bedrooms, and the other that would cap the number of three-bedroom units allowed in particular neighborhoods. Both would further limit students' options when it comes to housing, not only putting strain on budgets but perhaps making prospective students rethink UI as a plausible choice.

Though permanent residents may have cause for concern over the growing number of students living in the area, it is undeniable that university provides the surrounding areas with economic and cultural benefits. Any ordinance that threatens to drive students away from the UI, such as reducing access to affordable housing, threatens to impose measurable economic damage on Iowa City's local businesses.

To be sure, the City Council is not the only body that can help the housing issue: the UI has some role to play in controlling the encroachment of the student body upon permanent residents. But the UI has access to a limited number of tools to accomplish that goal. The dorms are at capacity, and another 450-bedroom dorm is not due to open until 2014.

And even if displaced students would flock to new student housing, it would most likely mean UI would increase tuition and fees when the cost of a college education is already on the rise.

So, with UI stretched to the limit, if these ordinances were to be put into action, there would be few housing choices left for students who have access to limited funds.

With the recent 21-ordinance, and now the push to pass this housing ordinance, Iowa City is becoming increasingly unwelcoming to students. Permanent residents of the town continue to complain about the activities and behavior associated with college students, though the students are a fundamental and crucial part of the city's atmosphere.

The question now is whether we confront these new challenges with rigidity or flexibility. This new zoning ordinance and its accompanying regulations are rigid and unwelcoming. The relationship between off-campus students and permanent residents needs to be improved, and limiting the housing options accessible to students accomplishes just the opposite.


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