Rezoning for Affordability?

Rezoning in Greenpoint/Williamsburg, April 2009

This week, the Washington City Paper published an article on Housing Complex, an affordable housing blog, encouraging housing advocates to look to the zoning code as a means of creating affordability. Lydia DePillis writes:

Affordable housing shouldn’t be all about setting prices artificially low—it’s also about letting builders build the amount of housing this city needs. I asked […] Jenny Reed [of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute] whether she’d thought about the land use aspect of affordable housing. She said that she’s interested in it—mentioning New York City’s consideration of changing its zoning to allow for micro-apartments, which would be useful in D.C. as well—but hasn’t done much research. It’s time to do the research. You can’t pretend to have a holistic housing strategy without addressing one of the biggest reasons why we don’t have more of it.

DePillis is writing primarily based on the Washington, D.C. renters market, which I know very little about (other than that it is as notoriously expensive as New York’s.) In New York City, we do have zoning code initiatives that are intended to encourage affordable housing development, and not just the micro-apartments that DePillis mentions. Our experience has been that zoning initiatives just haven’t done that much to spur affordable housing development or keep rents low.

In New York City, inclusionary zoning allows developers to build bigger buildings and gives them tax breaks if they reserve some of the units for affordable housing – usually about 20% of units. However, we have a few reservations about how effective it has been:

  • Small output: The Center for Urban Pedagogy, which has produced an excellent primer on NYC affordable housing programs, estimates that since 1987, rezoning has produced about 1,700 units of affordable housing in NYC. Compared to the estimated 500,000 units provided through subsidy (Mitchell Llama, Section 8 and NYCHA Public Housing) plus the at-least 1,000,000 units kept affordable though rent regulation, this number is tiny.
  • Will developers build? In the midst economic recession, construction projects are stalled and buildings are standing empty. The re-zoning of Greenpoint/Williamsburg is a famous example in New York City. A couple early years (c. 2005) of feverish redevelopment served to bring in high paying residents. Then, the economy crashed and construction crawled to a halt. If people aren’t building housing in general, they certainly won’t be building affordable housing.
  • We can’t force developers to participate. In her article, DePillis acknowledges a problem with inclusionary zoning: developers will often forgo the benefits associated with providing affordability in exchange for working free of additional city regulation.
  • Is it enforceable?: In both Battery Park City and Greenpoint/Williamsburg, high profile NYC rezoning initiatives, the actual number of affordable units turned out to be far lower than what was developers initially promised. This caused a great deal of community outcry.
  • Are the units created really affordable? Most inclusionary zoning results in 20% of units being rented to families whose income is 80% Average Median Income (AMI). 80% isn’t that affordable. A senior citizen, for example, living on a fixed income would likely be unable to afford this kind of apartment. In New York City, where AMI is based on all 5 boroughs and Putnam County, units affordable to those making 80% AMI still results in rents much higher than what many low income tenants can afford.

In her blog post for Housing Complex, DePillis makes a good point – we can’t rely only on subsidy to protect affordable housing, particularly in a political climate where reducing federal spending seems to be the national goal. We are all for creative ways of reforming how we think about creating affordability, and it was this same process of thinking outside the traditional targets that encouraged us at UHAB and our allies to focus our energy on banks in 2009. And land use is definitely relevant to creating affordable housing. However, the process of changing the zoning code is so labyrinthine and bureaucratic – and in many cases produces controversial results – that we wonder if it is truly where housing activists should be focusing their energy.


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