Some Des Moines neighbors want a density requirement for Airbnb properties in city neighborhoods

Des Moines is unveiling its first updated zoning code in more than 50 years, proposing rules that require new buildings to blend in with the surrounding neighborhood.

A collection of neighbors have voiced their opposition to proposed changes to how Des Moines regulates short-term rental housing.

The sticking point? Short-term rental owners would no longer be required to live in the home they rent out on Airbnb or an equivalent platform. Currently, owners must live in the structure they rent for at least 275 days, preventing them from owning and leasing multiple properties.

The Des Moines City Council will consider the changes at its Monday afternoon meeting.

Residents of Des Moines’ Ingersoll Park and Sherman Hill neighborhoods would prefer the city keep the restriction, which it only approved back in October. Rather than have unlimited miniature “hotels” set up in their neighborhoods, they want people to live in them permanently.

Carlie Hamilton, who lives in Ingersoll Park near three Airbnb-type properties, would like to see the council limit the number of short-term rentals per neighborhood: at least 1,000 feet of separation between short-term rental properties.

“I could have a lot of homes around me becoming non-owner-occupied hotels operating,” she said.

But Airbnb owner Brad Podray, who’s led the effort to relax the city’s restrictions and owns several Airbnb properties across Des Moines, said the threat of more Airbnb-style rentals is overblown. In fact, he’s shutting down a pair of his Airbnb houses because the short-term rental market “has absolutely reached saturation.” He said he’s seen sales at his units drop around 20-30% since 2018.

While more people have joined the market, he said it’s still not as though short-term rentals are close to taking over blocks of single-family housing because Des Moines doesn’t attract enough tourists.

“That’s absolutely insane,” he said.

Two adults wanting to book an Airbnb stay for next weekend (Feb. 28 to March 1) can choose from about 150 listings in the Des Moines area, according to the Airbnb website. Twelve of the listings reside in the Sherman Hill Neighborhood, a historic area with older homes and apartment buildings.

In a letter to the City Council, two Sherman Hill residents, Carlton Salmons and Catherine Lillehoj, urged its members to end an “embrace of the Airbnb absentee landlord model.”

When the council approved the zoning-code overhaul in the fall, members promised to re-evaluate the short-term rental rules after Airbnb owners vocally objected to the more restrictive rules, saying they would curtail their businesses, keeping them from purchasing and renovating otherwise unwanted properties.

The city began reworking the ordinance in the new year, fewer than three months after the original passage, and proposed reversing several of the new rules.

“They threw out so many things that were good,” Hamilton said.

During a daylong workshop on Nov. 5, Ward 3 Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, like Hamilton, worried about how a neighborhood would be affected by eight to 10 short-term rentals.

“What does it do for a neighborhood feel?” he asked.

When council members asked about enforcement and punishments for code violations, neighborhood zoning administrator SuAnn Donovan warned that too much restriction could trigger action from state lawmakers, who’ve shown they’re willing to supersede Des Moines’ ordinances.

To Hamilton, a cap on short-term rentals would be a safeguard that could prevent excessive noise or an influx of guests parking on the street. While short-term rental owners buying and refurbishing unwanted properties might be a benefit for some parts of the city, she wants permanent neighbors invested in her local schools and streets.

Podray said the new rules will still protect neighborhoods. Short-term rental owners would still need to obtain a conditional-use permit from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which could revoke the permit if they find any complaints about the property valid.

“I think it is the best way to progress forward,” he said.

He also characterized those opposing the ordinance as “not-in-my-backyard kind of folks,” saying most Des Moines residents don’t care about the issue. Hamilton agreed that people have been complacent, but the rules affect some residents more than others. Namely, the ones living in the neighborhoods with the most short-term rentals.

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