Inclusionary zoning for affordable housing: Are you asking the right questions?

By Liz Enbysk, Smart Cities Council

Policies that force developers to incorporate affordable housing into new projects in exchange for incentives aren't new. But as the affordable housing crisis heats up, more cities are looking at inclusionary zoning as a partial solution.  

Earlier this month, as city leaders in New Orleans were looking at inclusionary zoning to get more workforce housing into neighborhoods with access to public transportation and other services, the Louisiana Senate passed legislation that essentially bans local governments from implementing developer mandates like those under consideration in New Orleans. And last month a free market think-tank filed a lawsuit against Metro Nashville over its new policy to spur more affordable housing.

These scenarios illustrate the challenge inclusionary zoning advocates face as cities across the country struggle to fill increasingly large gaps in the demand for affordable housing.

Katy Miller, a regional coordinator with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), points out what can be seen in many cities today. There's lots of housing development occurring, but the number of units being built that are truly affordable to low-income families and those exiting homelessness does not meet the demand.

She also highlights a number of questions to consider if inclusionary zoning is on your city's radar and reports how several cities are handling some of the issues she raises. Here's one example:

Do you want inclusionary units to be set aside in all new market rate developments or just those of a particular size?

"It is important," Miller writes, "to give developers clear guidance on the size and type of project that would be included in this policy, the percentage or exact number of units to be set aside in a building, and whether the policy is mandatory or voluntary." She points to several approaches cities are taking:

  • Portland, Oregon, just adopted inclusionary zoning policy that requires any new multi-family buildings of 20 units or more to set aside 20% of the units for households making 80% Area Median Income (AMI). The policy also includes an option for developers to pay a fee instead of including units in the building, which is another possibility cities should consider.
  • Washington, D.C.’s Inclusionary Zoning Program requires new condominium or rental properties over 10 units or existing properties expanding by 50% or more or adding 10 units or more to devote 8 -10% of the units to low-to-moderate income people who are District residents or who work in the District. “Low-to moderate” is defined as 50% to 80% of the Washington, D.C .Metropolitan AMI.
  • New York City’s Inclusionary Housing Program includes two options, one for voluntary participation, where a development will receive a density bonus for participating, and the other mandatory inclusion of a share of new housing that will be permanently affordable in medium and high density areas that are rezoned to increase new housing production. The city has also published an inclusionary housing map to provide the public with information on sites.

More considerations
Among other questions Miller recommends cities consider:

  • Have you done an assessment of the housing need across income levels in your community to know how many new units are needed and at what level of affordability? 
  • For developers who opt to include affordable units within the building, is there clear guidance in the policy on the quality and location of the units?
  • Have you considered other affordable housing incentives such as bonus density or waivers?


Liz Enbysk is editor of the Smart Cities Council’s Compassionate Cities initiative, which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and


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