This year, some of the first apartments and condos subject to inclusionary zoning laws in DC are hitting the market, stoking debate over development laws that the city adopted in 2007. The inclusionary zoning requirement is currently stalling the city’s West End Library renovation with Ralph Nader leading efforts to include an affordable housing aspect with the library project. Inclusionary zoning advocates often base their support on the desirability of mixed-income neighborhoods, while challengers argue that inclusionary zoning is an inefficient way to deliver housing with unintended consequences.
Heather Schwartz, who studies education and housing policies at the RAND Institute, says that one important feature of this policy tool is that it gives low-income families access to high-income neighborhoods while at the same time limiting the number of low-income residents in a neighborhood. She said, “Since IZ is a place-based strategy that tends to only apply to high-cost housing markets, it can offer access to lower-poverty places than housing vouchers and other forms of subsidized housing have historically done.”
David Alpert, editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington, a local urban planning blog, offers another argument in favor of inclusionary zoning, “a policy that builds support for both greater density and affordable housing,” he said in an email. “Much of the opposition to greater density involves a feeling that it is just a ‘giveaway’ to developers who make the profit and impose some collateral burden on a neighborhood, but many people are more supportive of the density if it serves an affordable housing goal.”
While inclusionary zoning proponents may see its ability to introduce just a few low-income residents to a higher income neighborhood as an asset, it does not typically meet an area’s demand for affordable housing. Montgomery County, MD, outside of Washington, DC has one of the nation’s most established inclusionary zoning problems. In over 30 years, inclusionary zoning has created fewer than 13,000 housing units in the county, which area developer AJ Jackson with EYA describes as “a drop in the bucket of housing demand.”
Jackson explains that the requirement to take a loss on some units leads developers to build only higher end housing, where they can make up the losses they take on the affordable units, making the remaining market-rate units still more expensive. Jackson suggests that the only viable solution to the problem of a lack of affordable housing is to increase allowable densities broadly. He points to several neighborhoods in DC and surrounding counties are currently zoned for commercial or light industrial uses, but that profitable residential development could succeed with zoning changes.
However, he points out the political obstacles to this type of development. He said, “For these jurisdictions, office density and jobs are great. But residents take more than they give in tax revenues,” so city officials may oppose residential development for budget purposes. An even greater obstacle may be current residents’ opposition, a well-documented setback to all sorts of DC-area projects from residential to restaurants.
The political incentives that confront politicians when they do decide to embrace more development complicate the density bonus calculus. The pro-density argument for inclusionary zoning is that the bonuses allow developers to build where they otherwise could not, but when an area is being targeted for development anyway, anti-density activists can easily anticipate bonuses when base zoning allowances are being hashed out and factor them in to their maximum tolerated building envelope. If those who oppose development in and of itself have enough clout, the “bonus” that developers can be reduced just a technicality.
For example, during the rezoning process for Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood in 2005, New York City Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried wrote in a statement that the city should follow the lead of the Hudson Yards rezoning, where the affordable housing programs were made “effectively, if not technically, mandatory,” which he attributed to “the leadership of Councilmember Christine Quinn,” now frontrunner to succeed Bloomberg as mayor.
The city did eventually take steps to increase the amount of affordable housing built by Hudson Yards developers by tweaking the “bonus” formula so that the rezoning yielded more affordable housing without more bulk than the administration’s proposal. Some below-market units were carved out of the proposed development, while others were pushed off-site – the affordable housing “will not generate additional bulk in the neighborhood through an inclusionary bonus,” as Chelsea Now wrote in 2009. The affordable apartments will be built on city-owned plots 15 blocks north, which given their location, were destined for development soon anyway.
And for those who support inclusionary zoning programs because of the extra density they can bring to neighborhoods, Assemblymember Gottfried’s suggestion for West Chelsea should be especially troublesome: “The Commission should look for places to lower the base FAR to allow the area available for affordable housing to increase.
Indeed that seems to be what happened. “Building density in the entire [West Chelsea] district has been reduced from the previous plan,” The Villager wrote the next month, “in order to provide more incentives for developers to apply for higher density under the inclusionary housing program.”
And New York City is not the only place that affordable housing groups have fought as-of-right density in the name of bonus incentive programs. Last year in California, some housing advocates were hostile to legislation, supported by developers and environmentalists, that would have forbidden municipalities in the state from requiring more than one parking space per unit in neighborhoods adjacent to frequent transit corridors.
As Lisa Payne, policy director at the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, told the California Planning & Development Report in regards to their opposition to Assembly Bill 710, “We have 30 years of history with density bonus law, that recognizes the value of trading a planning concession, whether it be height, density, or parking for supplying the mix of incomes in a project. This bill would have removed that tool.” Affordable housing groups withheld their criticism of the 2012 iteration of the parking reform bill, but it has yet to pass.
While inclusionary zoning provides significant benefits to residents who are lucky enough to live in allotted affordable units, it does not provide sufficient housing units to address many cities’ housing affordability challenges, and in some cases can even breed alliances between affordable housing advocates and anti-density constituents. As Jackson explains, permitting more and denser development is the only viable path to this goal.