A person has been living in a school bus in Ames for weeks. Is it legal?
Teresa Kay Albertson
Published March 16, 2023
Ames, Iowa - A school bus converted into a home that has been parked in Ames for several months has drawn complaints from neighbors and possible changes to city law.
Ames City Council documents say several residents have complained about the bus, which appears to have a woman with one or more animals living inside. Reports say it has been parked near the 1000 block of North Third and North Fourth streets and the far eastern end of Northwestern Avenue near Wheatsfield Co-op Grocery.
The council addressed the issue at its meeting Tuesday. There's nothing in city code that would prevent someone from living in a retrofitted bus on city streets, besides an ordinance that requires parked vehicles be moved every 48 hours.
After a lengthy discussion in which the city went over complaints and potential options, council member Tim Gartin made a motion that directed staff to come up with options to limit the size of vehicles parked on city streets.
"I don't like the idea of us forming a statute based on one resident sort of forcing our hand," Gartin said. "But ultimately, I'm not sure that we have a choice. We have a duty to our residents to make sure that they can reasonably enjoy the investment they have made that affects their quality of life. I think this is a reasonable step and one that is enforceable."
In a rare event, the vote tied. Council members Gartin, Gloria Betcher and Amber Corrieri voted yes to the motion and council members Anita Rollins, Bronwyn Beatty-Hansen and Rachel Junck voted no. Mayor John Haila broke the tie with a yes vote.
In addition, the council unanimously voted to approve Betcher's motion that staff consider action related to potential safety issues with the bus, including what's believed to be a wood-burning stove and a ferret living inside.
A person inside the bus did not answer the door Tuesday and has not responded to a request from the Ames Tribune for an interview.
Some neighbors don't mind, others want it gone
Ames resident Doug Foley has called and emailed City Council members for more than a month about the bus parked near his home, according to the council documents.
"There is laundry and trash around the area," Gartin said in an email to City Manager Steve Schainker on Feb. 13 about a phone call he received from Foley. "Doug believes there may be homeless people who sometimes stay in the bus. He is concerned that it is an eyesore and public health concern."
Doug and Jean Foley submitted photos of personal effects piled up around the bus, including a mattress, clothing, full garbage bags and a jogging stroller.
Some residents on Third Street told the Tribune they do not want to keep seeing the bus. Ben Visser, a real estate agent, said he fears others may follow suit if the city continues to allow it. Melissa Stenstrom said the wood burning stove bothers her sinuses and allergies. She suggested the city come up with a place for vehicles like this to park.
Greta Anderson said she commends the bus owner's "desire to use few resources" and recognizes the trend of living in small or alternative homes.
"But this is kind of an open defiance of our neighborhood's wishes," Anderson said. "Our neighborhood has been invaded and it's like being in a war zone with this bus here. It has an apocalyptical feeling."
Meanwhile, some neighbors aren't opposed to it. Samantha Ward, who lives on Northwestern Avenue, said though she finds it "a little odd" she isn't complaining.
"It hasn't been an issue except for when she left an axe out behind her bus one day," she said. "It doesn't bother me or affect my living in any way, but we do have a lot of traffic along this street."
Lisa Leibich doesn't mind it, either. "My son loves buses and seeing it makes him very happy," she said. "I don't know her story, but it's not easy in the winter. I saw her chopping wood one day during a snowstorm. But I feel like she isn't ruining my life or causing me any concern. I just hope people are nice to her."
One neighbor on the street said she doesn't mind at all, except when the bus is parked across from her driveway. In that case, it makes it hard to maneuver in and out.
Ames city ordinances allow the bus to park on city streets with few restrictions
City parking ordinances do not prevent recreational vehicles from being parked on the streets, other than a boat. There are some restrictions, though, including that vehicles cannot park in any one location for more than 48 hours; a detached semi-tractor trailer of any kind may not be parked on any street; and vehicles cannot block intersection or crosswalks.
In the case of the 48-hour street parking restriction, when residents complain about a vehicle parked in a residential neighborhood, the city will mark the tire and place a notification on the vehicle. As long as the vehicle is moved a few feet forward or backward every 48 hours, the owner of the vehicle will not be ticketed.
City Attorney Mark Lambert prepared a memo for the City Council meeting Tuesday that outlines some of its options regarding long-term parking of vehicles with people living in them. They include an outright ban on using a vehicle for human habitation while the vehicle is parked on city streets, prohibiting people from sleeping in vehicles parked on city streets overnight, or preventing vehicles over a certain size from parking on city streets.
However, Lambert said, community ordinances around the country related to human habitation and/or sleeping in vehicles have not withstood constitutional challenges.
Staff and council agreed this is not a frequent problem or an ongoing problem. Lambert said he could only think of one relatively similar situation many years ago.
Some council members voiced reluctance to create a new ordinance to solve one problem that involves one person and one vehicle.
"To borrow a phrase from Tim (Gartin), I think this is a solution in search of a problem. I don't see it as a big problem," Beatty-Hansen said. "I think we've gotten a few complaints about it in an individual case. I don't think this needs any fixing."
Junck said she wasn't interested in any action that would ban living or sleeping in vehicles.
"Having worked with the school district, there are a number of families who are homeless," Rollins said. "The idea of criminalizing them because they don't have adequate resources, I'm concerned."
But she said she'd be open to an ordinance that addresses the health and safety for people living in vehicles. Betcher agreed that the issues of safety and health are on her mind.
Staff and council's safety concerns focus on a wood-burning stove inside the bus that might be sitting above the vehicle's gas tank. Council members also raised concerns about an animal that seems to be living inside the bus and the personal belongings and refuse piled up outside of the vehicle.
Ames Police Chief Geoff Huff said officers and the inspection department have visited the bus and the occupant regarding the refuse left outside. They helped the person carry items inside, he said.
The City Council is expected to revisit the issue in the coming weeks.