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PlanDSM: Creating Our Tomorrow

By Scott Sanders

A lot has been written and said over the past few months about the new zoning ordinance proposed by the City of Des Moines. Unfortunately, rhetoric has supplanted facts and misleading talking points have been too often shared and repeated.

Our current zoning code was written in 1965. It has been amended more than 300 times over the past 54 years. Over time, those changes created conflicting procedures and inefficient processes that too often led to confusion, delays and frustration.

We knew Des Moines needed something better and more workable.

The proposed zoning ordinance now before the City Council will provide greater predictability and efficiency along with a more focused urban design for developers and neighborhoods. It is not simply a zoning plan for today but rather a vision for Des Moines and its neighborhoods over the next 30, 40 and 50 years. A strategy of Creating Our Tomorrow.

In less than 20 years, the population growth in the greater Des Moines area will require an additional 51,170 housing units. Based upon our historical average of 200 new residential single-family permits issued per year in Des Moines, it would take 256 years to build 51,170 single-family detached units. That is why we must consider higher densities that include six, eight or 10-unit complexes.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t dissuade those who argue that the construction of small houses is the best and only remedy to the City’s affordable housing issue – while these are right-minded, well-intentioned people, their suggestion is not.

Yes, a tinier house with no basement and no garage will be cheaper.  And it will remain that way when the home, over time, fails to increase in value. We strongly believe that affordable housing shouldn’t come at the expense of building equity. We should provide homes in Des Moines that create financial opportunities for all our residents.

To focus this debate on single-unit housing is also shortsighted and unproductive. It discounts the other positive attributes of the proposed code that will have a significant impact on the creation of sustainable and affordable housing units over the next 20 years.

Several years ago, we began developing the PlanDSM Comprehensive Plan and listened as hundreds of our residents discussed what the city would look like in two decades. The proposed zoning code addresses the future by prioritizing and encouraging developments that connect employment, land use and transportation.

For example, Des Moines has a majority of the metro’s public transportation, a benefit that uniquely positions the City to prioritize higher-density, multi-unit housing options.  The proposed code includes provisions for the development of multi-family residential housing along transit corridors and in areas that provide low cost transportation to jobs and services – which, in turn, lowers overall household costs.

To achieve this, the proposed code will encourage the development of “missing middle” multi-family residential units in more areas of the city. This ordinance will also focus on improving the value of each of our neighborhoods while developing a series of urban solutions to create socially equitable and fiscally sustainable neighborhoods throughout our city.

We all know that the strength of Des Moines resides in its neighborhoods. Each is unique and special. This improved zoning code will help ensure that our neighborhoods keep their charm and strong identities while providing flexibility and a variety of housing options.

Much has been made of the proposed zoning ordinance’s requirements for basements, garages and minimum square footage. After listening to homebuilders and housing advocates at our public hearings, we eliminated the requirement of a basement for each one- and two-unit dwelling. We believe it is important that garages remain in the code because they add value to the investment, keep clutter out of yards and improve resale opportunities.

While we did reduce (twice) the minimum square footage requirements from the original proposal, minimum standards are necessary because they will provide assurances to neighbors that new construction will be consistent with the character of their neighborhood.

Finally, I would like to assure the public that Des Moines remains committed to providing affordable housing.  The average sale price of a home in Des Moines is $133,000 – nearly $100K below the median price elsewhere in the metro.

What’s more, of the Polk County houses listed this week below $175,000, more than 80 percent are in Des Moines. No community comes close to offering more affordable housing in the metro than Des Moines.

As a city, can we do better? Of course, and we will. And it begins with PlanDSM, a new direction Creating Our Tomorrow.

Scott Sanders is the city manager of Des Moines.