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A zoning and land use call to action

While responding to today’s shortage of affordable housing is a multifaceted challenge, more and more communities are reconsidering their land use and development policies with an eye on boosting housing supply.


Awareness of the relationship between policies like zoning and rising housing cost is spreading everywhere: The Biden Administration is attempting to incentivize communities to change course on land use policies that limit housing. Industry groups representing multifamily and single family developers have released report after report concerning the financial cost of regulation. The American Planning Association has proposed reforms to make zoning more equitable. Politically diverse leaders in states like Virginia and New York have proposed comprehensive reform.  


Today’s zoning codes and approval processes can be a significant barrier to building new housing – and in the case of affordable housing, block it from being built altogether. In 2021, the Iowa Finance Authority announced a Welcome Home Iowa campaign in part to raise awareness of how many housing projects are altered or canceled – often as they pass through zoning or related approval processes.


What’s more, a new report by the Urban Institute has found that local boards and commissions tasked with overseeing zoning and land use decisions often lack representation among certain groups. These include women, Hispanic people, renters, and workers in occupations that struggle to afford the place they live based on the wages they earn -- like food, health care, and retail workers. Perhaps it should not surprise us, then, that many people in these same groups are among those facing a tougher challenge finding affordable housing in our communities.


In Greater Des Moines, communities are beginning to take action to address these challenges. A new wave of comprehensive plans being approved in communities across the region calls for ensuring diverse housing types at a variety of price points.  Communities are embracing strategies to support diverse housing types that used to be plentiful – but are no longer – such as missing middle housing, a major topic of this year’s Affordable Housing Week Symposium.


But real change will only come in the form of a consistent shift in these often complicated policies, and it will take all of us working together, as community members and housing stakeholders, to address the challenges our communities face.


As is often said, in our community, “we may not have mountains or an ocean,” but our region’s reputation as “a good place to raise a family” has long rested, in part, on housing choice and opportunity being widely available. Read on to discover actions communities can take – and are taking – to keep this promise for every person and family calling Central Iowa home.

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Where we've been

Last year at Affordable Housing Week Symposium, we heard from a range of local housing experts on the impact local policies have on creating housing supply our communities need. You can replay that conversation below:

Housing Supply - Affordable Housing Week 2022Polk County Housing Trust Fund
00:00 / 29:07

We also learned from that conversation that providing housing affordability requires a mixture of strategies - in addition to boosting supply, investing in subsidies for people and projects is needed, as are policies to protect housing stability for people who are housed, but not securely.


Rising costs have consequences

An estimated 231,559 households in our metro area (76.5%) cannot afford a median priced new home.

For every $1000 the price of a new home increases, an additional 255 households will be priced out.

Based on a current median price for new construction homes of $420,170. 
Source: Zhao, Na. (2023). NAHB Priced-out estimates for 2023. National Association of Home Builders.


Where we're going

This year's Affordable Housing Week Symposium featured an even deeper dive on Missing Middle Housing with national expert Tony Perez of Opticos Design.

Missing Middle Housing is a range of house-scale choices ranging from duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts and courtyard buildings, all fitting within detached house neighborhoods. These types that were once routinely part of neighborhoods are often left out of the conversation about housing types allowed to be built in our communities.

Enabling Missing Middle Housing is just one part of the local conversation about how policy changes can help make sure quality housing options are attainable for working families. The Here We Grow initiative is continuing to build this conversation across our region.  Add your contact information to stay informed.

For further reading

American Planning Association. (2023). Equity in Zoning Policy Guide. American Planning Association.


Einstein, K., Glick, D., & Palmer, M. (2019). Neighborhood defenders: Participatory politics and America's housing crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108769495.


Emrath, Paul and Caitlin Sugrue Walter. (2022). Regulation: 40.6 percent of the cost of multifamily development. National Association of Home Builders and National Multifamily Housing Council.


Emrath, Paul. (2021). Government regulation in the price of a new home: 2021. National Association of Home Builders.


Hoffman, Mike and Erin Cigliano. Connect 2 Create West Des Moines comprehensive plan: Action plan. A companion document to the City of West Des Moines’ new comprehensive plan.


Gray, Nolan M. (2022). Arbitrary lines: How zoning broke the American city and how to fix it. Island Press.


Lo, Lydia, Eleanor Noble and Yonah Freemark. (2023). Who makes planning choices? How women, people of color, and renters are systematically underrepresented on land-use decisionmaking bodies. Urban Institute.


Parolek, Daniel, and Arthur Nelson. (2020). Missing middle housing: Thinking big and building small to respond to today’s housing crisis. Island Press.


Phillips, Shane. (2020). The affordable city: Strategies for putting housing within reach (and keeping it there). Island Press.


Russett, Anne. (2023). Request for information pertaining to housing affordability. Memo to the City of Iowa City, Iowa, Planning & Zoning Commission. A related public presentation can be watched at


Schuetz, Jenny. (2022). Fixer upper: How to repair America’s broken housing systems. Brookings Institution Press.


Zhao, Na. (2023). NAHB Priced-out estimates for 2023. National Association of Home Builders.


White House. (2022). President Biden Announces New Actions to Ease the Burden of Housing Costs. The White House.


Einstein, K., Glick, D., & Palmer, M. (2019). Neighborhood defenders: Participatory politics and America's housing crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108769495.

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