What is a rental unit? This seemingly simple question animated the Perry City Council Tuesday night as it started the process of changing its new rental ordinance in order to define more precisely the words “rental unit.”
Is a rental unit a living space that you own but someone else pays you money to occupy? And does it have to be money, or can someone’s “rent” consist of paying the utilities or doing the yard work or washing your car? What if you buy a house for your parent or child to live in and do not charge any form of rent? Is that house a rental unit?
Or is a rental unit simply any living space that you own but do not yourself live in, regardless of who does live in it?
Questions like these and uncertainty over the exact meaning of the definition arose Feb. 18 at the first meeting of the Rental Code Board of Appeals. Puzzled, the appeals board recommended the city council’s public safety standing committee review the definition, which it did at its Feb. 25 meeting. The committee in turn recommended the city council amend the ordinance for the sake of clarity.
As it currently reads, chapter 156.03 of the rental ordinance defines “rental unit” as “any building or portion thereof that contains living facilities, including provisions for sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation as required by this code and rented for monetary compensation.”
The safety committee recommended the city council replace the final words of the definition — “and (is) rented for monetary compensation” — with the words: “and which is non-owner occupied.” The council approved the first reading of the amended ordinance Tuesday but not before a contentious discussion of the circumstances giving rise to the revision.
At large Perry City Council member John Andorf was a member of the council’s housing committee, which worked for more than a year drafting the rental ordinance finally passed by the city council last May.
He was also the first to challenge the ordinance’s definition of rental unit before the rental code board of appeals, claiming a house he owns where a relative lives rent free should not count as a rental unit.
Andorf told the council he opposed revising the ordinance as proposed without an exemption for properties such as his.
“I have a problem with the expanded definition,” he said at the Tuesday night meeting. “I have a problem when somebody buys a house for grandma or mom to live in and calling it a rental and making them pay $25. Even though it’s not very much money, for me it’s more the principle, calling that a rental unit when my mom lives in the house.”
Andorf noted other cities, such as Ames, Norwalk, Clive and Des Moines, allow first-degree relatives to live in properties without treating them as rentals. These are “fairly large cities,” Andorf said, “much larger than we are, and they seem to be able to accommodate that. I’m not sure why we can’t accommodate that.”
He said the ordinance “ought to limit it to first-degree relatives, not make it expanded. Where it’s my sixth cousin once removed that lives in my house, then that’s no longer a rental. But if my mother, my son, you know, first-degree relatives, again, I don’t feel like that should be a rental.”
Andorf was challenged by second-ward city council member Dr. Randy McCaulley not over the definition of rental unit but over the way Andorf went about appealing his own case. McCaulley said Andorf tried to use his influence as a city councilor to obtain an exemption from registration and inspection fees from the rental code board of appeals.
The appeals board granted Andorf an exemption from the fees.
“My issue is more with how this came about,” McCaulley said. “Councilman Andorf, you know I like you, but I don’t like how you handled this whole situation. I think, as public servants, we owe our community an absolute, without question, good example for them to follow. The example you set was absolutely wrong. It just was.”
McCaulley said the least hint that actions by elected officials are self-serving makes people suspicious and lowers the council in the eyes of the public.
“You went to the board of appeals,” McCaulley said, “and you were the very first person to appeal your own ordinance. Furthermore, you brought up the fact that you were a city councilman at least four times in your presentation, which meant, ‘Hey, I’m trying to influence this board of appeals because I’m a city councilman.’ Anytime that we put ourselves as public servants in the public eye as if we’re entitled because of our positions, then that’s wrong. We are here to serve the public. We are not entitled to anything. This is an honor to be a servant for the public, and that’s how we should look at it.”
Andorf said he “did not expect or ask for any special treatment” from the rental code board of appeals and never expected he would need to come before the board. “I was told I had to take it to the appeal board,” he said. “I never planned to take it to the appeal board.”
McCaulley said Andorf should have raised the question in council before appealing to the rental board.
“You were here when we first talked about this,” McCaulley said. “You were one of the architects of this ordinance. Secondly, when it came to council, you never raised this issue once. Never once did I ever hear this issue come up. Then, instead of, if you did have an issue with it when fees were sent out for inspection, and rightfully so as according to the ordinance, you should have gone to City Administrator Peterson and said, ‘Sven, I have a problem with this. I think we need to bring this to the council and clarify it.’ That would have been being a team player.”
Andorf said he thought the matter was settled when the ordinance was passed and was surprised to find his house treated as a rental unit.
“That is correct,” he said. “I was one of the persons who helped put this together. Mr. Tibbles can agree that I brought this up more than once when we were putting the ordinance together. I brought it up several times to him. We agreed upon a definition that talked about the ‘monetary’ thing, so I thought it was settled. I was surprised.”
McCaulley remained adamant. He said politicians are held in low esteem by the public today, and any suggestion of impropriety or self-dealing just reinforces the tarnished reputation.
“What you did was just flat-out wrong, and you’ll never convince me that I’m not right,” McCaulley said. “Right now in our society, there’s all kinds of distrust for public servants, whether you’re talking the national level, the state level or the local level. And when we don’t act as a team, it just furthers that opinion. And as I said, you’re a likable guy, but I just disagree totally on how you handled it.”
Perry Mayor Jay Pattee struck a conciliatory note at the end of McCaulley’s rebuke.
“For a moment, I felt like I was at one of the national debates a little bit there, gentlemen,” Pattee said. “But I think you both have good points.”
The second reading of the proposed rental code revision is scheduled for the city council’s next regular meeting March 21 at 6 p.m. in the Clarion Room of the Security Bank Building.
Video courtesy Pegasus TV12 Director Keith Knoll and volunteer Doug Wood