If you follow conversations about affordable housing at all, you are likely familiar with IZ, or Inclusionary Zoning. Locally, we are hearing the term fairly often as many local municipalities are in various stages of considering or implementing IZ. Inclusionary zoning allows a municipality to require all new developments to have a certain percentage of affordable housing, and as I mentioned, many local municipalities are looking into it.
I became quite familiar with the term when I ran for local council in 2018. And I felt that it was definitely one tool that we should be implementing as a way to address the housing crisis. It seemed obvious to me at the time - we need more affordable housing and lots of new homes are being developed, so why wouldn't we put rules in place to require at least some of those new homes were affordable?
Three years later and I am less certain that IZ is the solution many of us had hoped it could be.
I definitely get the appeal, especially for elected officials who are hearing constantly from the community about the need for more affordable housing. Requiring a minimum amount of affordable homes from all new builds definitely feels like we are doing...something. But doing 'something' is not necessarily doing the 'right thing'. And to be clear, I am not convinced that inclusionary zoning is necessarily the wrong thing, but here are some of the reasons my thinking has shifted over time...
I believe strongly that one thing we need to address housing affordability is more housing supply. Supply on its own won't solve the problem, of course, but lack of supply seems to make everything worse. There is at least some evidence that inclusionary zoning can reduce new housing builds. Here is just one example from Portland. And, I know it feels like there is so much building happening, however, as this recent report states, "In the three years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, population grew nearly twice as fast as new housing units were being built."
I'm also becoming less certain that we should expect private developers to get us out of the housing crisis, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, new housing is the most expensive way to provide affordable housing. We have seen locally that any developments that include some affordable housing, well, you can likely count on one hand how many units are added. Even with IZ, it seems that 5-10% of units, at most, would be added. At least it's something, right? Perhaps. But I can't help but wonder if there is a better way to fund the affordable housing we need. Just one idea would be the creation of a levy of sorts that developers pay which is dedicated to maintaining or creating affordable housing in the community. I have a lot more to say about what that could look like, but will save it for another day.
Secondly, while I know that housing is essential in providing stability in one's life, having access to other supports is often beneficial as well. Simply having developers add a percentage of homes below market rent, may not meet the needs of many in our community, However, we have lots of non-profits doing great work in this area. What those non-profits often need however, is money. If instead of having builders build new affordable units, we had them contribute (significantly!) to these non-profits, might we come away with more homes that include any needed supports as well?
Lastly, I think one of the most important things we should be discussing in regards to affordable housing, is that we must have governments get back to providing social/community housing. It feels to me that the focus on inclusionary zoning shifts responsibility away from governments to drastically increase social housing, and on to private developers. While I think there is an important role for developers in providing the much needed supply of housing in general, I'm not convinced they are ever going to solve the housing crisis. We need governments to do that.
So, those are a few of my thoughts on inclusionary zoning, but I am definitely open to learning more. My thinking has shifted a lot in the last few years on this, and I suspect it will continue to do so. What do you think about inclusionary zoning?