Knock, Knock; Who’s There?

Imagine renting a home and answering the door to a couple of men in suits.  “We understand you have a few people living here that are unrelated to you.”  How would you respond to that question by someone showing an official badge of the city in which you live?  It may not happen to most of us, but all of us should care about government sticking its obtrusive nose into our households.

Senate File 2300 is a bill that prohibits the regulation of rental property by a city based upon familial relationships.  Instead, the occupancy limitations would be based upon square footage.  The purpose of this bill is to give rental property owners and their customers – people who can’t afford to purchase a home of their own – a right to be left alone from government busybodies.

A 2007 Iowa Supreme Court decision, ARPA v. Ames, supposedly settles the matter in favor of the City of Ames and other municipalities.  An Ames ordinance limited occupancy to certain homes in certain neighborhoods to “no more than three unrelated persons”.  However, the decision was not unanimous.  The legal question in this case was whether the Ames ordinance violated the Equal Protection clauses of the United States and Iowa Constitutions.  All justices agreed that the ordinance did not violate the federal constitution, but Justice Wiggins, with whom Justices Appel and Hecht joined, filed a dissenting opinion in which he believes the ordinance violated the state constitutional provision of Equal Protection.  Article I, section 6 of Iowa’s Constitution states:  “All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

The majority opinion properly identified the question of “whether the ordinance . . . is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.”  But that’s all it got right.  The majority sided with Ames’ argument that the ordinance promoted “a sense of community, sanctity of the family, quiet and peaceful neighborhoods, low population, limited congestion of motor vehicles and controlled transiency.”  Those may be governmental interests, but are they ‘legitimate’?  Or, is it just convenient to a particular section of the community?

Justice Wiggins acknowledges that cities have a “legitimate purpose in promoting the quality and character of its neighborhoods,” but we share his perception that it’s sort of a stretch to believe that “distinguishing between related and unrelated persons in a zoning law is rationally related to the promotion of a sense of community, sanctity of the family, quiet and peaceful neighborhoods, low population, limited congestion of motor vehicles, and controlled transiency.”

Justice Wiggins said that “this ordinance disadvantages those most likely to live with roommates—the poor and the elderly. . . . The ordinance distinguishes between acceptable and prohibited uses of property by reference to the type of relationship a person has with those they live with, not by the conduct of those that live in the residence.”  He even had a suggestion.  “If Ames wants to regulate population it can do so by reference to floor space and facilities. Noise and conduct can be controlled with nuisance and criminal laws. Traffic and parking can be controlled by limiting the number of vehicles to all households or with off-street parking regulations.”  This suggestion is the point of SF 2300.

“Families today, especially ones with teenagers, are just as likely as a group of unrelated persons to have numerous vehicles parked outside their home. In fact, in a college community like Ames, students, the unrelated persons most targeted by the ordinance, are more likely to rely on alternative means of transportation—public transportation, foot, or bicycle—than a vehicle.”

The rationally-written dissent offers more common sense arguments:  “As another court has articulated under a similar ordinance, “twenty male cousins could live together, motorcycles, noise, and all, while three unrelated clerics could not.”  That raises a funny question.  Would a convent be excluded from the ordinance because all the residents are sisters?

“[I]t is irrational to suppose this ordinance promotes a quiet and peaceful neighborhood. This ordinance does not distinguish between a raucous family that plays loud music at their home, has large parties at their home, and houses more vehicles than persons living in their home, and a house of four single, quiet, homebodies whose only knowledge of wild parties and loud music comes from watching television. As another court summarizes, housing ordinances of this sort create an irrational discrepancy in treatment because a tenant-occupied house whose “residents happen to be the quiet, neat type who use bicycles as their means of transportation” are subject to the ordinance; “whereas the owner-occupied house is not subject to the ordinance, even though its residents happen to be of a loud, litter-prone, car-collecting sort.”

The dissent comes to the bottom line:  “Ames claims it is promoting a sense of community with this ordinance: But whose community is Ames promoting? Is Ames only interested in promoting traditional families or those who can afford to live in a home without roommates—the wealthy and the upper-middle class? It is irrational for a city to attempt to promote a sense of community by intruding into its citizens’ homes and differentiating, classifying, and eventually barring its citizens from the community solely based on the type of relationship a person has to the other persons residing in their home.”

This last thought provokes one of our own.  How do you prove that you are related or not related to another?  Will DNA samples have to be procured?  We’re okay with the government knowing approximately ‘how many’ live in a particular building; we are not okay with the government knowing “who” lives in a particular building.

Mason Proffit sang that “we’re all brothers, and we have to learn how to live.”  Communities should allow all of us to live as brothers and sisters, and not takes names as we move from rental property to rental property in an attempt to escape the clipboard-toting, badge-wielding, eyes and ears of city officials who want to know who is living with you.

Contact your state senator and urge passage of SF 2300.

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2 Responses to Knock, Knock; Who’s There?

  1. Jorgen Rasmussen says:

    Three unrelated clerics is OK, the law kicks in when three is surpassed. “Certain homes…” I assume you mean houses. I assume that dorms and fraternity houses are exempt. This almost seems a time warp. A century ago there were a lot of “boarding houses.” Some research has been done on boarding houses for members of Congress early in the 19th century. They didn’t live permanently in DC in those days. Living in the same house as other members of Congress was useful for getting things done because they got to know each other. I believe there are a number of churches which operate safe houses for battered wives. What about people whose children have moved out and who have space to take in some foreign students? I would have thought that it would have been difficult to draft any legislation that could avoid unintended impact.

  2. Jerry says:

    My son lived in an Ames apartment with three others unrelated to him. I guess he was in the ‘right’ neighborhood.

    This sounds like a ghetto rule to me. In the ghetto four unrelated students can live in a single apartment, but outside the ghetto they cannot. That’s not equal protection of the laws.

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