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More thoughts on inclusionary zoning

Alan Ehrenhalt recently published a balanced piece in Governing that largely reflects my own views on inclusionary zoning. It’s called: Why Affordable Housing Is So Hard To Build.

His argument is that there are lots of cities trying to build more affordable housing, but that most strategies have not yet proven to be all that successful.

I’ve written a few posts on inclusionary zoning. The most recent is this one. And though I believe that a mix of incomes is a critical component of good city building, I am having a hard time believing that inclusionary zoning is the silver bullet that will get us there. Admittedly, it sounds like a great idea. But how does that translate into reality?

Here’s a snippet from Alan’s article (shout out to Daniel Hertz of City Observatory who seems to get cited in almost every article I read these days):

Just about every city that has tried an inclusionary zoning law in recent years has had a similar experience. In some cases, the results have been much worse. According to BAE, Chicago’s inclusion law produced $19 million in 11 years, but only 760 affordable units. Thirteen years of inclusionary zoning in Seattle brought the city $31.6 million in fees and a grand total of 56 units. As the urbanist Daniel Hertz wrote recently, inclusionary zoning has been “more powerful as a symbol than as a way of helping people.”

Of course, the devil is in the details. Many inclusionary zoning policies allow cash in lieu of actual housing:

San Francisco actually has had an inclusionary zoning law since 2002, and it has been a flop. It mandates a 12 percent affordable set-aside, but allows developers to escape the mandate by paying a fee to the city. As in Arlington, this is what they have done. A study by the research firm BAE Urban Economics found in 2014 that after 12 years the San Francisco law had brought in $58.8 million in developers’ fees and had generated 1,560 units. That’s better than nothing, but it’s a drop in the bucket for a city facing an affordability problem in virtually every neighborhood.

All this said, I’m still not so sure that it’s as simple as eradicating the cash in lieu option and forcing mandatary inclusionary zoning. As Alan rightly points out in his article, if we set the bar too high, then all of a sudden it starts making some market rate housing infeasible to build. 

And if this ends up lowering the overall supply of new housing, then we could be hurting affordability while at the same time trying to mandate more of it. Does that make sense? Clearly this is not as simple as it may seem.

I get the appeal for cash poor cities. It sounds like free affordable housing. But I’m always suspect of “free” lunches. In any event, I think we can all agree that this is an important discussion to be having.

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