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Inclusionary Zoning Keeps Housing Costs Down

duplex styled to resemble single-family homes in immediate area

Inclusionary zoning, also called inclusionary housing, is a possible solution to the jobs-housing mismatch, which is a fancy term for the discrepancy between incomes and housing costs. It's equally important to say you should do away with your exclusionary zoning. Let's explain.

Inclusionary zoning is a term meaning that the zoning regulations encourage, rather than discourage, the construction of affordable housing, whatever that relative term might mean in your locale. We'll just think of it as below-market-rate housing. Occasionally inclusionary zoning measures are enacted as standalone laws or chapters of the zoning ordinance, but probably more often, a local government simply combs through the zoning ordinance to identify requirements that work against lower cost housing and tries to modify those requirements in a way that will help broaden the range of income levels that can afford to live in a particular jurisdiction.

Exclusionary zoning is the opposite, and consists of requirements for large lots, large setbacks, and various amenities such as two or three paved off-street parking places, trees of a certain size and quantity, landscaping requirements, and even large home sizes.

For an inclusionary zoning approach to improve housing affordability, consider whether the lot sizes for each of your residential zoning classifications can be reduced without great harm. Many people enjoy not having much of an expanse of lawn to care for.

Maybe you can zone for more villas, townhomes, patio homes, and condominiums, as well as write a zoning district classification and assign a zoning district or two or three for mixed-use development.

We know that neighbors often resist greater housing density, but you can use visual preference surveys, tours of nearby developments, and conversations with the developer to help defuse that.

You can actually provide some desired amenities while pushing your zoning and/or subdivision regulation to be inclusive. For example, consider whether your minimum required street width can't be lowered. You may not have considered it, but the cost of building those wide streets is a developer cost and pushes up the price of housing.

The complete streets movement is popular, because it calms traffic, puts neighbors closer to each other, reduces future public costs of repaving, and so forth. But it also reduces the initial cost of development.

Review development-related fees to see if the government actually requires that much revenue to process an application. My experience is that usually application processing is a money-loser, but if your government has been tempted into raising money through higher fees, you're increasing the cost of housing a bit.

Also see if you can reduce administrative delay in approval times, because delay means a builder paying more carrying charges on the land.

But also you should reduce large lot sizes, unnecessary setbacks (especially in the front yard of residential streets), excessive parking requirements, and even height limitations if and where appropriate.

Adding an Extra Housing Unit on a Lot

Another really useful approach to providing some discreet affordable housing and even low-income housing is the alley house, carriage house, granny flat, mother-in-law quarters, accessory housing, garage apartment, or whatever term for accessory dwelling units you may be familiar with.

If you have a community full of elegant two-story homes widely spaced, with large rear yards and alleys, can't you provide that people can build carriage houses along the alleys? Provide strict standards for them, and architectural review so that the carriage house is in some sympathy with the main house, but you can do that. I know you can.

If you zoned to allow new carriage houses, that would be an example of inclusionary zoning.

More Resources on Inclusionary Zoning

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy just issued a new report on inclusionary housing.  This report is thorough (but not in an exhausting way).  It gives examples of inclusionary housing programs, discusses policy matters to consider when designing a program, acknowledges problems with regulatory approaches to inclusionary housing, and deals honestly with staffing and other resources required for successful long-term implementation.

It's worth noting that in a few instances, states have actually enacted legislation to preempt local governments from enacting measures that would contain housing cost.  Examples are the U.S. states of Kansas and Indiana.  Mostly though it is local political dynamics that stall zoning requirements that would promote equality.

For more detailed ideas, you could check out this inclusionary zoning ordinance (actually a section of a Massachusetts zoning ordinance) recommended as a model by Professor Daniel Mandelker of Washington University. 

This reminds us to say that it's a good idea to include a description of your purposes even if your inclusionary provisions are part of the overall zoning ordinance. Whenever anything slightly atypical appears in a zoning ordinance, it's a good idea for a city council to make findings of fact that are incorporated into the ordinance ratifying the amendment. In this case your town or city should be presenting its reasoning as to why the supply of affordable housing in your community is inadequate, or why certain groups are excluded.

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