Iowa City officials expresses concern over lawmakers’ effort to restrict local government power

City councilors and staff see a recently proposed housing design bill as a part of a worrying trend in the Iowa legislature.


Shuntaro Kawasaki

City council members communicate during an Iowa City City Council meeting at City Hall on Jan. 24, 2023.

Isabelle Foland, News Reporter

Several City of Iowa City officials have expressed disappointment and frustration with a proposed bill in the Iowa Legislature that would restrict the city government’s ability to dictate certain residential housing design standards.

City staff said the bill follows a worrying trend of state-level bills that take away power from local governments. An Iowa Senate subcommittee recommended the passage of the proposed bill, SF43, on Jan. 17.

If passed, the proposed bill would no longer allow local governments to set new or amend existing residential building standards, such as determining what materials will be used or the building’s aesthetic.

In interviews with The Daily Iowan, Iowa City staff and councilors shared concerns over the impacts this bill would have on the city’s strategic plan, specifically on issues such as racial equity and sustainability.

Iowa City Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter said planning and zoning play a major role in allowing the city to build sustainably and make its neighborhoods more diverse and inclusive. This bill would effectively negate these efforts, she said.

She said she worries the bill would have a negative effect on the city’s relationships with building developers because of the limits it places on the city’s collaboration with the developers.

“We have some really strong partners who are both local and from out of state and to now have this kind of real imbalance in terms of that we don’t have any say in how our communities will have their residential housing built is really disappointing,” Alter said.

The scope of this negative impact expands beyond Iowa City, and the effects of this bill will be long-term, Alter added.

“This is going to impact so many communities at a time when Iowa itself is struggling to keep people,” Alter said. “If the community is weakened through not very good neighborhoods or the development is just sort of pushed in, that’s going to have ramifications for years to come.”

RELATED: Iowa City City Council highlights affordable housing as most important topic in five-year strategic plan

Looking beyond the impact this bill would have on the city’s strategic plan, Deputy City Manager Redmond Jones said what stuck out to him the most about the bill is the loss of control over the aesthetic of a neighborhood.

“We would believe that having a home rule and the ability to guide that building process at a local level is important,” Jones said.

In addition, Iowa City City Councilor Shawn Harmsen said it appears this bill would be beneficial to the wealthy, as the bill states its constraints would not apply to private parties that own housing covenants, which are private legal restrictions on the use of land.

A topic that was repeated among city representatives was the general concern over state and federal governments taking powers away from local governments.

Harmsen said this apparent trend is “not a stream of bad bills and bad bill proposals” but a “fire hose,” citing a 2017 Iowa law that prohibits local governments from controlling the minimum wage as another example of the state stripping power from municipalities.

“It’s another one of those inequity issues built into a law that we don’t need that is solving a problem that we don’t have,” Harmsen said.