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.


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!


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 .



[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.


Blog # 65 – The Scammification of Good Ideas

Progressive Planning and the Scammification of Good Intentions:
13 endangered ideas in urban affairs

“Watch what you say,” and particularly how you say it, if you want to make sure your meaning is clear. The language of urban planning and policy is full of treacherous terms, terms that are sometimes deliberately used to suggest a meaning the opposite of what their speakers actually intend — in short, language scams. A language scam is one that uses a term, a goal, a proposal, generally given a favorable democratic and social-justice- oriented term to cover over or even to justify actions that in reality produce injustice and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. In other words, to turn a good idea into a scam.
Listed below are some language scams in current use, often innocently, sometimes not. They include:
1. Affordable
2. Diversity
3. Exclusion/Inclusion
4. Discriminnation
5. Community Control
6. Participation
7. Participatory Budgeting
8. Infrastructure
9. Investment
10. Community Economic Development
11. Density
12. Community Land Trusts
13. Ethics

1. “Affordable.” Mayor de Blasio’s current housing proposal is intended to provide housing for low and moderate income households unable to afford market rate housing because of limited means. As used in his proposals for inclusionary housing, a certain percentage (more on this below) of new market-rate housing should be subjected to a requirement of setting aside for “affordable” units. But to count as affordable a household earning up to 130% of the area median income in New York City is. That means folks earning up to $$110,000 a year are considered low and moderate. That means able to pay up to $2,700 a month in rent. That is virtually identical with what the market would produce without the inclusionary requirement, In other words, it purports to help people needing help, but does so at trivial cost to the developers of market rate and luxury housing. That use of “affordable” is a scam. If the intent is to help those really needing he help, it might be better called “housing for low and lower income households ,”often taken to mean below 30% for the former, below 60% for the later, and based at local, not metropolitan, income levels.

2. “Diversity.” Most people would consider diversity to be a good thing in housing: having people of different races, religions, genders, family composition, living together. Indeed, even Federal legislation, in the use, establishes “protected classes” against whom discrimination in housing is prohibited. The intent is presumably to expand the range of opportunities for those with limited options because they are the subjects of actual or potential discrimination. But taken literally , it can either mean the greater inclusion of, say, African-Americans or Hispanics or immigrants in conventional private housing of the better off, or the entry of the better off within the dominant groups into the housing of those protected groups: specifically, gentrification to provide “diversity” by displacing them in favor of the richer. Ringing poorer folk into richer neighborhoods is good diversity; bringing richer folk into poorer neighborhoods, without more, is bad diversity. And that “more” means making their accommodation feasible and productive for the newcomers, promoting interaction. (See Exclusion/Inclusion” below).

3. “Exclusion/Inclusion.” Exclusionary practices are almost universally condemned, at least in theory. Opening up all-white suburbs to black occupancy has long been a goal of progressive planning. Its purpose is seen as expanding he opportunities of those opportunities otherwise limited. But affirmative policies to expand such opportunities produces opposition from those ending with reduced opportunities by being placed lower on the waiting list for a given unit. The goal is fairer inclusion of those otherwise denied opportunities. That’s simply the nature of the beast: for every inclusion of one there is necessarily some impact on the possibility of including another. Where the possibilities are limited, an exclusion of another. The point is whom the particular policy helps and whom it hurts; does it promote fairness or reinforce injustice. A policy that limits the displacement associated with gentrification to some extent excludes some who would like to gentrify.
Further, “Inclusion” can simply mean the being together in some larger scale of housing, say a building or a neighborhood, at the same time, often judged simply by a count of how many of this kind are in that unit of measurement compared to how many of the others, i.e. is it 10% to 90% white or 30% black to 70% white. But simple occupancy statistics do not reflect the success or failure of the effort to produce inclusion. Indeed some who would otherwise not such good housing do get something better than they would otherwise have. But that result by itself might be even better obtained, and at less cost, elsewhere, without being “included.” Quantitative inclusion, inclusion measured simply by the count and location of households is not desired result of inclusion—integration, contact, communication, mutual learning and mutual respect, enrichment of experience, greater knowledge of the world, is what is wanted. Perhaps “interactive inclusion” and “oppressive exclusion” would be more useful formulations.
4. “Discrimination.” Chief Justice Roberts of the United States Supreme Court has said, in condemning affirmative action to overcome discrimination based on race: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” meaning stop taking race into account in considering any actions. Catchy the statement may be, but it’s obvious nonsense. How can you tell if someone or some policies discriminates on the basis of race if you don’t look at the race of those affected? If taking race into account to end discriminating on the basis of race, so be it: it’s using attention to race to prevent discrimination, not to practice it. If in individual cases the facts also operate to deprive a member of a discriminating group, from benefiting from membership in that group , whether that result is intended or not, is consistent with most concepts of justice, and is an inevitable result of the existence of discrimination in the society at large

5. “Community Control.” The principle of community control” is widely , and properly, considered a core principle of progressive planning It has been developed as a form of planning, community-based planning,” and is logically being pushed as a reaction to police oppression in minority communities in the form of community control of the police. There is no doubt of the intent here, but its application in practice is potentially treacherous. Giving racist and exclusionary communities control of planning promotes oppressive exclusion; giving a white racist community control of police in its community would promote, not restrain, oppressive policing. Calling what is desired “equitable community control,” or “community control in disempowered communities” might be an alternative. In the 60’s, “people’s control” might have worked, or “populist community control.” The important point is that there needs to be equity-oriented discrimination either in what communities are given enhanced control or in centrally established and binding standards for what action at the community level are permitted and which are not, coupled with requirements of participation (see below) and transparency and democratic representation in the involved communities, would be part of a progressives interpretation of community control.

6. “Participation.” Participation is a core concept in democratic governance, a front burner issue since at least Paul Davidoff and the early 1960’s. But what participation accomplishes depends very much on who is participating, for what, and with what effect. The implicit assumption is that many even in presumably democratic societies are in fact excluded from participating, and if the excluded were allowed in, the results would be better and more equitable. But the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Communities United case allowing unlimited money contributions political issues can also be termed, as indeed it as by the Court, a move to expand the rights of participation, by the poor very rich who shouldn’t be prevented from participating to the full extent of their ability. But their fuller participation in fact reduces the meaning of the participation of the large majority of the non-rich. The slogan of “participation” is intended to bring those non-rich more fully into the political process. In that use, it is and should be a politically loaded term, and speaking of “democratic participation,” with the adjective emphasized, is perhaps a better language to convey its progressive meaning.

7. “Participatory Budgeting.” Participatory budgeting is a front-burner demand in a growing number of communities, and is aimed at allowing expanded democratic participation into a part of government that has decisive impact on what government does but is usually substantially removed from detailed influence by the many affected by it. In New York City each City Council member is entitled to direct the expenditure of a limited amount of of the city’s budget to purposes of his or her choice, with almost unlimited discretion as to how this is done. Co-ordinated organizing efforts succeeded in involving hundreds of residents in community meetings where real alternatives were discussed and real decisions made. In the larger order of things, the results were very small, yet they were positive examples of how democracy is supposed to work. But it took major efforts to achieve those results, and if they end up giving the illusion that democracy has triumphed and control over the city’s budget has shifted, the result can be less, rather than more vigorous, participation where it counts more. Again, speaking always of democratic participatory budgeting, and constantly pressing for its expansion to a larger and larger scope, can help preserve the good intentions of the movement.

8. “Infrastructure.” Investment in infrastructure is often put forward as an unquestionable good: it promotes economic development, provides jobs, should protect the environment, is non-political. But in fact it is very political; it promotes certain types of economic development, does nothing for others – helps real estate development, by-passes issues of education or criminal justice, by-passes and excludes other needs. It is community economic development, but for some communities much more than for others.

9. “Investment.” As with infrastructure, investment is generally considered in principle a good thing, and non-political, but, as with infrastructure , both public and private investment have very clear distributional results, helping some, often at the expense of others , as when investment in automation brings lay-offs and unemployment. Without equity-oriented cost-benefit analysis, socially-oriented investment cannot be differentiated from mere profit-enhancing investment, and the difference can be great.

10. “Community Economic Development.” Without clear definitions as to what is meant – generally, development assistance to those with restricted opportunities living in poor communities, the phrase can equally well be used to justify development activities that simply increase the value of real estate in a community, result in gentrification and displacement of resident,, profits for a few (bringing up average incomes, but not medians – watch out! – and is much more and very differently desirable in some communities than in others. Equitable community economic development might clarify the intent.

11. “Density.” In New York City, at least “density” is a term very much in vogue. Increased density is presented as a good planning response to desirable population growth, and indeed it can serve that purpose. But increasing density can also mean encouraging high-rise luxury condominiums and towers for the financial industry, on the one hand, and over-crowding in squalid housing for many others. Mumbai, in India, for instance, is a graphic example of producing both at once. In New York City, the support of the Real Estate Board for proposals to encourage density suggests who the expected beneficiaries are likely to be. Discussing “density” without discussing its racial and class implications , produced a very one-sided content for the term

12. “Community Land Trusts.” Community land trusts provide a legal form of land ownership that removes the ownership of land from the speculative market and provides residents opportunities for reduced housing costs and increased input into the management of their housing and strengthened integration with their communities through a democratic composition of their trustee boards to include neighbors as well as residents, with very desirable results. But they do not provide a solution to the big problems confronting a growing segment of the entire population, which have to do with unaffordable costs, many of which are incurred in a private market system in which the ownership of land itself is only one component of the profit potential the housing system opens up, in which the costs of financing, for instance, lay an ever increasing role. And community land trusts can be, and were often historically, used to exclude, by giving existing occupants control over in-movers, as well as to broaden democratic. If community land trusts are seen as the solution to the problems of housing the majority face, they can be diversionary rather than exemplary . They are one good alternative form of tenure within the larger housing system, but not a remedy for all its ills. They require different considerations for different types of communities, which may run from inclusionary to exclusionary, poor to rich, integrated to homogeneous. And their relationship to economic development poses other challenges; for instance, for manufacturing areas, what does “community” mean? Community land trusts are a tool, not themselves a goal, unless they are first steps in a campaign to decommodify land as such.

13. “Ethics.” No one would argue that ethical behavior is undesirable, or that corruption is a good way of doing things. But ethics is the term for a course of individual conduct, not the characteristic of a system a social order, an institutional arrangement, a distributional goal. In planning, the requirement that planners act ethically has been interpreted by its professional association in its Code of Ethics, thus far at least, as imposing enforceable obligations of transparency, allegiance to client’ interests and avoidance of conflicts of interest, technical competence, honesty in representations made to others. Ethics, as thus viewed, does not address issues of social justice, equity in results, desirable distributional impacts of planning decisions; those are at best considered in the Code as aspirations of the profession, their consideration not enforceable mandates. Without considering justice at least one substantive and enforceable criterion goal of all professional activity, speaking of ethics of planning addresses only issues of how things are done, not what is done, and misrepresents the standards by which good planning should be judged.

So all of the above terms are, as generally understood, rife with the values of social justice, equality, and democracy, but all are in danger of scammification, or perversion to achieve the opposite of what most take to be their intent .If progressive planning, is to Expose, Propose, and Politicize, the necessity to expose the ambiguity of such terms becomes a critical starting point—not to accept them as having an obvious and universally understood meaning, but rather to dig into them see what their real content is. Without clarifying their meaning when they are used they become hollow words, hollow concepts, and the danger of Scammification is great.

Progressive planning means practical radical planning that goes to the roots of problems as well as ameliorating their immediate undesired aspects. Therefore exposing what these terms, this language, actually means in any given situation, their potentials and their darker side, is an important and indeed unavoidable constant task for progressive planners. And it is not always an easy thing to do; the line between a well-intended but inadequately thought-through use of these terms and a scam is a sometimes a hard line to draw, but it has to be done.

Good planning, in our time, is still a very vulnerable baby, and its surroundings are full of hot air and very hot water. Scamification can scald it. Progressive planning can help protect it.