• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

North Liberty is “doing it right”

Housing trends, inventory reviewed by NL council, P&Z

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– The North Liberty City Council and the city’s Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission had a lot to talk about during their recent joint meeting Aug. 4, but much of the discussion centered on the quantity– and quality– of multifamily housing.
North Liberty City Planner Dean Wheatley led the discussion between the two groups, a regularly-scheduled forum to give the council and commission a chance to touch base in person and communicate about policies and procedures.
While the agenda included updates on the city’s parks plan, outdoor eating patios, new development areas, streets improvements and even a planned reconfiguration of an outlot in a Fox Valley subdivision, the majority of what the decision-makers wanted to talk about was the status of North Liberty’s multifamily housing market, housing affordability, and whether or not city ordinances are sufficiently addressing current housing trends.
The general consensus? They are.
In fact, said Mayor Amy Nielsen, North Liberty has been doing exceptionally well in planning its growth.
“The comment I’ve heard is that North Liberty is as close to a model community as you can get,” said Nielsen, saying that others involved in housing issues countywide have voiced approval of the community’s overall residential planning.
Ten years ago, North Liberty’s residents, government and administration began to voice concerns about the prevalence of multifamily housing, particularly in those neighborhoods where homes were built with identical facades, producing what many came to call “cookie cutter” housing. In 2007, the council passed a 60-day moratorium on multifamily residential site plans, but later dropped the moratorium and instead adopted new design standards to give the city more control over the quality and appearance of multifamily housing developments.
However, builders of single-family and duplex residential neighborhoods are not required to file a site plan for review by the commission or the council; only the building department reviews the plans to make sure they meet building codes and design standards. One of those standards dictates that no two single-family or duplex front elevations within any group of four contiguous lots can be identical.
It means a builder can simply change the color or type of stone used on the front of the homes and still follow the rules. To illustrate, Wheatley showed the groups four examples of relatively new housing units that were similar or identical.
“Until recently I didn’t see it as a problem in North Liberty,” Wheatley said. “I didn’t think we had too much of that going on. Now I’m somewhat concerned, especially because we have a couple of large duplex areas coming online.”
He asked the council and commission members if they felt the city’s design standards were satisfactory, and the overwhelming response was that, in the area of housing, variety is better.
“When we continue to see developers who want to bring in multifamily housing, I would say we’d have cause to look at it a little closer,” said planning commissioner Rhonda Detlefsen. “If we want it to continue to look nice and be appealing, we would want to ask them to do something to change it up.”
Wheatley did caution that cities can go too far in regulating such aspects of housing, and “I think we have to find that fine line,” he said.
More ideal is a neighborhood that incorporates mixed designs, Wheatley said.
“One builder in town has only five different house plans, but if you drove into one of his neighborhoods you wouldn’t know it, because each design is different,” he said. “He mixes those up through the development. That seems like a little better result than the every-house-looks-the-same approach.”
The council and commission members agreed.
“Some of the most attractive is when we have mixed housing in a development,” said councilwoman Coleen Chipman. She pointed to Harvest Estates as a good model. “It has a variety of housing in it. It looks good, and provides housing for many different incomes. It makes a neighborhood more interesting. I think it’s what we should strive for.”
Throughout the meeting, Wheatley explained how visual appeal can affect home values, and those values inform discussions on affordable housing and can be a contributing factor in population growth.
P&Z commissioner Jim Sayer talked about certain areas of the Deerview neighborhood that have a “tract home” feel, lacking in character and facing deterioration as starter-level homes pass from owner to owner.
“I don’t mean to say neighborhoods always go downhill, but sometimes they feel that way,” said Sayer.
“No, they do,” Wheatley confirmed, but largely because of the way housing units naturally depreciate or go through cycles of buying and selling.
As time goes on, land prices and materials costs increase, which drives the sale price of new homes upward so developers and builders can continue to make a profit. Yet time also brings depreciation in the value of existing homes.
“Eventually, they are no longer new homes, so people don’t want to pay new home prices for them,” Wheatley explained in a phone conversation after the meeting. “The same house that sold eight years ago for $240,000, even though assessed value may have gone up, is still worth about the same on the market.”
Another market factor, particularly in the buying and selling of multifamily housing units, occurs when they become rental properties.
“So then you have another owner, and maybe that owner is in California or Chicago. Or maybe they are not a good landlord, and the property gets run down,” said Wheatley. “The more multifamily you have, the greater the chances of that happening to a larger number of units.”
All of those considerations become important to the city’s Land Use Plan and determining appropriate zoning classification areas: where to allow multifamily housing, and how much of it.
It’s also significant related to the recent countywide push for municipalities to provide affordable housing.
Affordable housing is generally defined as units that are affordable to those whose income is below the median household income.
“Keep in mind, 62 percent of all the housing units in our city are apartments, condominiums, mobile homes or duplexes. That’s a very, very substantial number. I would challenge any other city to show a number that high,” said Wheatley. In his professional experience, he added, a more typical number would be 20 to 30 percent. Because of the abundance of less-expensive homes, North Liberty’s average home values tend to be lower. He noted North Liberty also has zoning districts that allow for higher density with single family homes on smaller lots, there are approximately 270 housing units that receive some sort of assistance, and the city contributes $8,000 annually to the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County, the agency that promotes and supports affordable housing options.
Wheatley shared a variety of statistics showing the current composition of North Liberty’s housing market and its median and average home values: $104,997 is the average value of condominiums, while $193,525 is the average value for a single-family dwelling. Both values are comparatively low, Wheatley said.
Another way some communities ensure affordable housing is to create inclusionary zoning requirements, dictating that a certain percentage of each new development be set aside for low-income housing. Larger cities with high housing demands, particularly on the country’s coasts, have imposed inclusionary zoning for many years, but trying to enforce it in smaller communities sometimes encourages builders to simply build in other cities.
Wheatley said inclusionary zoning is also intended to integrate variety into a city’s housing stock and neighborhoods, but North Liberty is already doing it.
“When we talk to housing experts in the local metro area, they think North Liberty has done it right as far as providing opportunities for all different housing buyers and renters. We have a lot of variety in our market. At least for now, I think it works well,” Wheatley said.
Council member Chris Hoffman concurred with Wheatley’s assessment.
“I think you nailed it,” Hoffman said. “North Liberty is doing it right.”