Blog #80 – Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning: the Good and the Bad


Mandatory Inclusionary Housing: MIH, the Good and the Bad

MIH is an approach to ameliorating housing problems, and it lays an important role in city planning and zoning. It generally permits denser and higher new private development in areas zoned for it, but it requires  developers to set aside a given percentage of the new units for housing affordable  by families of lower income, essentially paid for by the profits of the new market rate housing also allowed. It combines zoning and planning policy with housing policy; both aspects need to be considered in any careful evaluation.

The housing part: A housing system that does not provide adequate decent safe and sanitary housing for all citizens is wrong. It hurts the most vulnerable sections of our society; it is the exact opposite of what Rawls calls the second principle of Justice:[1] it discriminates against those already the least advantaged, those already suffering from hardships in employment, in education, in health care, in finance. And it inevitably overlaps with discrimination on racial and ethnic grounds.

The fact that the effect of discrimination is produced by the market is no excuse for allowing it.[2] Wealth is unequally divided in our society; there is no conceivable moral justification for some acquiring billions and others being homeless; we are rich enough to house everyone, in decent, safe, and sanitary units. Allowing billionaires to play a wildly disproportionate role in politics, and thus in government, in the social decisions that we make through government, permitting them to act in their own self-interest rather than letting government act on behalf of all of us and be guided by a decision-making process that is fully informed and democratic, makes the injustice of a profit-based market housing system even worse.

Mandatory inclusionary zoning can be an effective tool to deal with the injustices of such  a purely market-driven system of producing and allocating housing. I would commend the mayor and HPD for pursing it, and making it an important component of an overall approach to the problem of housing.

But MIH fails if it is distorted to serve as an excuse for segregation and functions by enabling displacement under cover of serving social justice. That’s not a criticism of MIH as such; it’s a criticism of it us without considering it role in the wider task of community–based planning and development. MIH plays this perverse role in two ways:

  1. Who is included in the inclusionary part? If it is a program that makes sure that those earning a million a year are include in every enclave of billionaires, that could be called “inclusionary” too, but not what this is intended to be about by its advocates, and I believe not what the Mayor or HPD intend either. The abstract debate about whether those targeted for inclusion are those at 30% of AMI, or 20%, or 10%, is not quibbling about numbers, it is of the heart of the matter. It calls for thoughtfulness, for a recognition of political realities, for some careful analysis of needs and resources, but it seems clear to me that, given where we are, the lower the income groups served and the higher the proportions required to be included, the better. The perfect may be pragmatically the enemy of the good in political negotiations, but the direction of good public policy must be to move as close to the perfect answer as we can get.
  1. Where and how MIH is used is the second major issue in the program — in addition to the issue of numeric income limits and proportions – and the two are linked. It is a program intended by is advocates to act against discrimination , to help those excluded from decent housing because of their incomes and their jobs, or the lack of jobs, or by their  race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or religions, from a decent housing in a decent environment, those discriminated against by the functioning of the housing market enforced throughout by government, through its courts and judicial system, its environmental regulations and their presence and absence, through  public investments or disinvestment in physical infrastructure  and social  MIH can promote segregation as well  as integration. The devil knows that too.

Segregation is a form of discrimination. It restricts opportunities, inhibits broad diversity and its benefits, defines the opportunities it provides for community solidarity negatively, by indicating what cannot be done, by whom, with whom, rather than enabling a broad social concept of community as embracing the broad range of the society. MIH, if it is not undertaken in a community -sensitive and spatially-planned way, opens the door to the G word, Gentrification. Gentrification, over-simplified, is the displacement of poorer households by better -off ones, worsening the housing of those at the bottom for those closer to the top. The unregulated market will allow  those with the wealth and political resources to take over desirable locations in our cities that have been historically occupied by working class and poor families and turn them into higher income enclaves from which the or  have been expelled. If a MIH proposal is part of a zoning scheme in which gentrification is rationalized by requiring a smattering of those in need of housing to benefit from the displacement of many of their brethren and sisters, it produces that kind of segregation. Rezoning a particular area to allow more housing to be built in such fashion that the net proportion of higher income households is significantly increased in the community displaces families both on the parcels on which it is built and those priced out of the community by the impact of increased land values resulting from the new construction for the richer will further, not reduce, segregation as the net result.

And MIH will have a natural tendency to produce that result if it is not carefully structured to avoid it. The income levels fixed, the proportions allowed, the resulting net totals, the neighborhood effects, the social guidance of the market setting of rents and, the planning social facilities and social investments, re all involved here. The impacts of specific provisions will vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, from community to community, and should be undertaken with the greatest of care and the maximum of community input and decision-making – Rawls’ goals of social justice must be kept  in mind.[1] Diversity, for instance , has specific benefits in itself , in permitting mixing, mutual enrichment, solidarity and mutual support ; but diversifying public housing by introducing higher income household at the expense of those intended to be serve by it, with the result of benefiting higher over low-income families, is not  a just objective of public policy . Likewise with the allocation of public subsidies, using housing vouchers, etc., to facilitate inclusionary occupancy only when it is to the ultimate benefit of its developers and those in less need, is unjust.

MIH may be put forward as a painless no-displacement approach to rezoning empty or grossly technically underutilized land. But again it may be helping solve a housing problem at the cost of increasing segregation and in determining desired zoning and planning goals. The issue is not direct displacement, but secondary displacement: preventing families from moving into an area where they might otherwise find affordable housing and integrated housing by an upzoning that increases housing, specifically land, prices beyond their reach. That process is called secondary displacement, and advances segregation as much, if less visibly than, direct displacement.  Using MIH as part of an upzoning is better than having the upzoning without the MIH, but that’s hardly the only alternative. Good planning would evaluate a range of possibilities. One very promising approach, for instance, is the use of community land trusts or mutual housing associations as owners or decision-making entities of development, making the process of planning and implementation really democratic down to the neighborhood level. Further, the alternatives for any major proposal should be considered in the context of planning for the future of the city as a whole, where future commercial development might best be concentrated — or dispersed – whether the plan promotes or helps overcome the sharp divisions of the city with its internal boundaries of race, income, ethnicity, social status, gender.

In summary: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, in the context of community-based planning, strengthening inclusionary communities democratically designed by and for those that government justly should serve, has great potential. But it must be carefully designed, both in its own details, incomes to be served, proportions to be reached, and in its broader context, the communities to be served, the planning into which it must be integrated. Depending on its design, it can go badly awry, or be a real instrument for progress in the social good.

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The big picture:

In the best case scenario, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing can be a way of redistributing the benefits of the city’s growth  and sky-rocketing land values, which the city as a whole has created, not the individual land owners benefiting from it, , and letting the city’s people and their communities capture some of that increase in value. It does so in a way clearly meeting the very definition of justice, helping those least advantaged and reducing the advantages of their richer cousins.  Communities, and particularly those most need, can capture some of that socially created increases in land values through MIH. It redistributes from the more fully advantaged to the less advantaged, the very definition of justice. In less advantaged communities, MIH can make sure, given adequate, meaningful community control, that benefits and costs are fairly distributed. In more advantages communities. Think how different today’s suburbs or exclusionary enclaves would look if mandatory inclusionary zoning had been in effect when they were developed!

Or

In the worst case scenario , mandatory inclusionary housing  can be a way of enriching developers and land owners by opening new opportunities for profit for them by building  market rate high rise highly profitable developments in upzoned “undervalued” neighborhoods, at the expense of displacement of families in need of housing , what’s called gentrification. Displacement follows, not only on the site of the new development, but secondary displacement also follows, where land in the newly developed parcels increases development prices in the surrounding neighborhood, putting some of it also out of reach both of its existing residents and of those under normal circumstances likely to move in but unable to at the new higher prices.  And the masters of the new developments can get away with it politically by raising the image of dong good through provision of a limited number of housing units to poorer people, some of whom might actually b those they themselves just displace,. or who might be useful for the rich to have nearby as nannies and cooks and chauffeurs and butlers. In both cases, there is a danger that, at the scale of the city, segregation may increase and, for lack of a comprehensive city-wide planning approach, the desired balance among uses, residential, commercial, manufacturing, public facilities, will be lost.

Even seemingly technical issues, like what % of Area Median Income defines households in need of “affordable“ housing, or what proportion on MIH units in a given development should  be market rate and what affordable, or seemingly procedural planning issues such as the strength of city-wide comprehensive planning and its relationship to community-based plans, and in what communities with what standards, can make the difference between the best case and the  worst case scenarios .

 

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[1] that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged

[2] In fair housing law, it is not only acts of intentional discrimination that are banned, but also those having the adverse effect of discrimination.

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