Eric Burmeister (left), executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, at Monday’s Des Moines City Council meeting. Des Moines City Councilman Joe Gatto (right) reacts to comments made by Burmeister about the need for a long-term housing plan for Central Iowa. Screen grab from televised meeting.

Numerous times Eric Burmeister has urged city officials in Des Moines and elsewhere to develop a long-term strategy to meet the housing needs of the area’s future residents.

And numerous times, no actions resulted from the request, he has said.

On Monday, the executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund tried again, this time during a contentious public hearing on Des Moines’ new zoning code. Included among the new additions to the code are minimum size requirements for new houses built in the city.

“We need to formulate a long-term housing plan, something this community really does not have and something that this region certainly does not have,” Burmeister said toward the end of the nearly four-hour public hearing. “I would ask Des Moines to be the leader in starting it.”

workforce housing study released in late May showed that more than 57,100 new housing units – owner-occupied and rental – are needed in the Greater Des Moines region during the next two decades to meet the needs of people moving to the area for jobs.

The study estimated that 70% of new households will have annual incomes of $75,000 or less. Because of that, there will be increasing demand for houses that are affordably priced, Burmeister said. “Des Moines needs to add 630 new homes in the $175,000 to $225,000 price range a year for the next 18 years to meet that demand. 

“And that’s just what we need in the city of Des Moines. The rest needs to be part of someone else’s plan,” he said.

Said City Councilman Joe Gatto, sounding irritated: “Are you going to the rest of the city councils and making this pitch?”

Replied Burmeister: “Yes, councilman. We do this on a regular, regular basis.” Burmeister said he’s talked with leaders in other communities about developing a regional affordable housing plan and “frankly, I was disappointed. I saw a lack of interest.”

“I will tell you, it will be a heck of a lot easier to make those asks if the city of Des Moines leads,” he added. “If the city of Des Moines does not lead but continues to talk about ‘fair share’ or that ‘we have more [affordable housing] than we need,’ I predict we will not see a regional affordable housing plan” developed.

While the suburbs have several employment centers, affordable housing isn’t located near where the jobs are located, Gatto said. “We are relying on public transportation to get [workers] there instead of relying on homes in the suburbs for them to live.” 

At the beginning of the public hearing, planning administrator Mike Ludwig explained ways the revamped zoning code supports affordable housing, including:
- Eliminating a long review process if proposed plans meet specific criteria.
- Allowing construction of houses on smaller lots.
- Allowing construction of accessory homes, such as apartments above garages.
- Encouraging the development of duplexes in some neighborhoods.

Councilman Chris Coleman, at the end of the public hearing, reemphasized points made by Ludwig.

“If we adopt this zoning code, it will be a jolt in a positive way for affordability in housing,” he said. If other communities also adopted a similar zoning code, “we’d have housing in the metro that is affordable.

“What we’re doing is leading.”

The council unanimously approved the first reading of the zoning code ordinance. Two more readings of the code are scheduled before it goes into effect, likely on Oct. 24. The additional public hearings are set for Sept. 23 and Oct. 14.