DES MOINES — Zoning ordinances in Iowa City and other communities that limit the number of unrelated occupants on residential rental property are at issue with some lawmakers aiming to overturn the criteria with legislation proposed in the Iowa House.

The bill would allow cities to regulate the occupancy of residential rental property based on square footage but not on the basis of how many residents are not related or considered family.

Opponents of the bill include several college towns with student populations, including Cedar Falls, Iowa City, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Representatives of the communities say the bill proposes a top-down approach that would take control from cities in zoning matters.

“It makes it difficult to stabilize neighborhoods, protect neighborhoods and rejuvenate neighborhoods if we can’t control density and occupancy,” said Doug Boothroy, Iowa City’s director of housing and inspection services, adding removing such criteria could negatively affect property values in neighborhoods not intended for high-density use and create congestion, noise and parking issues.

Boothroy said using familial-ties criteria — meaning by blood or marriage — is a common practice in zoning ordinances in Iowa City and in other communities.

Several civil rights groups and landlord associations, such as Mike Triplett with the Central Iowa Apartment Alliance, support the bill, saying “cities should not be in the business of regulating who can live in an apartment” or rental houses. Bill proponents said there are other ways to regulate occupancy beside keeping tabs on the relations of renters.

“There’s plenty of existing ordinances that (cities) can use to address their concerns,” said Rep. Mark Brandenburg, R-Council Bluffs, referring to issues of noise, parking and disorderly houses that officials say can arise from large occupancies of unrelated residents.

Boothroy said although those ordinances do exist, he called the measures more of a reactive than proactive approach.

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Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, said she doesn’t agree with the bill and the decision should be left up to local governments, citing an Iowa Supreme Court case in 2007 that ruled in support of city governments. Ames Rental Property Association sued the city of Ames in 2007, claiming an ordinance limiting landowners from leasing to more than three unrelated people violated the equal protection clause. The state Supreme Court ruled the city was not in violation.

“It’s not that we’re saying that unrelated people in any numbers can’t live together in Ames, because we have lots of high-density-zoned areas where they can live,” she said. “And the same goes for other communities that have the same kind of makeup that we have.”

The issue was introduced last session but didn’t make it out of the House Judiciary committee. The fate of the measure remains uncertain as it has yet to make it out of subcommittee as next week's “funnel” deadline for bills to pass through a standing committee approaches. Wessel-Kroeschell and Brandenburg sit on the subcommittee assigned to the bill but have yet to meet.

“I would hope that it does (make progress),” Brandenburg said. “I think it’s a good bill.”