Aug 20, 2021 - News
Des Moines' home improvement proposal raises property rights concerns
Illustration of a man standing in a dark cell looking up towards a tiny window in the shape of a house casting light inside his cell.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Homeowners in Des Moines could be required to make property improvements under a proposed city program that aims to make the community a more desirable place to live.

Why it matters: We all know examples of terribly maintained properties that reflect badly on our neighborhoods. City leaders are presenting the program as a way to fix the most egregious of those situations.

  • But questions are being raised about property owner rights, and particularly how the program would affect those who can't afford the repairs.

Background: Like many older cities, some of Des Moines' neighborhoods have struggled to keep up with regional housing markets and that's often attributed to urban decay.

The latest: Des Moines is now considering a city ordinance to establish a property improvement program that would help make loans, grants and other assistance available to those who are physically or financially unable to make the fixes.

  • Community support via volunteer groups and donations would also play a role.
  • But legal action against owners who refuse to act is possible.

Of note: Code enforcement — which can lead to property assessments or liens — would be a rare, last resort, SuAnn Donovan, assistant director of the city Neighborhood Services division, told the City Council last month.

  • The primary role of the program is to proactively offer homeowners assistance, she said.

What they're saying: Minority and low-income owners are oftentimes disproportionately affected by such ordinances, which can be burdensome or prohibitive even with city assistance, ACLU of Iowa spokesperson Veronica Fowler told Axios.

  • With existing tension among lawmakers over property rights, Councilperson Joe Gatto fears the city's ordinance could raise the stakes and prompt a statewide ban against such efforts.

Yes, but: Multiple cities in Iowa already have property maintenance ordinances, including Bettendorf, Davenport, Fort Dodge, Cedar Rapids and Clinton, Donovan told Axios.

  • Cities without such measures have little ability to require homeowner improvements until a property becomes so deteriorated that it's a public nuisance. By that point, it's often too late to avoid demolition, Neighborhood Services director Chris Johansen tsaid.

What's next: The council will meet Sept. 13 to discuss program details, then neighborhood meetings will be held from Sept. 14 through October.

  • The council is expected to vote on the ordinance in December.
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