Not Just Inclusionary Spot Zoning: Conference Portrays IZ As Essential to Civil Rights, Sustainable

The 3rd biannual National Inclusionary Housing Conference, which wrapped up Friday in Washington, DC, had plenty of the expected workshops focused on details of passing, implementing, and improving inclusionary housing programs, for practitioners. But there were also some bigger picture overarching themes that ran through the keynotes, panels, and hall conversations.

One was the need to see inclusionary housing as a central component of advancing civil rights and sustainable communities of opportunity. Far from merely being a specialized tool for generating more affordable units, it can be seen as the heart of ensuring equity-since where you live determines so much about your access to opportunity, ensuring housing choice and affordability is key to helping families achieve their potential.

Related to that were a number of discussions about the tension between a moving to opportunity type orientation — helping lower income people have access to low-poverty high-amenity communities — versus a place-based revitalization approach. Despite some heavy emphasis from senior statesman David Rusk on the former, there seemed to be general agreement that what Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs Derek Douglas called a “both/and” approach was necessary. “Justice is only justice if it can be implemented,” said Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development Mercedes Marquez. “You can’t move all the kids. You can’t. There isn’t enough money. And also many people don’t want to be alone. They don’t want to be the only one [in a higher income neighborhood].” And closing keynote Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink noted that “the highest form of regional equity is for every community to be a community of opportunity. We can’t get so excited about correcting the wrongs of the past that we only do one thing, not the other.”

Looking at inclusionary housing programs as ways to prevent displacement around new transit stops, increase access to transit for those who need it, and even support transit with nearby loyal riders who will use it for more than commuting, was also a major theme, so there was much conversation about the HUD and DOT interagency collaborations and Sustainable Communities Initiatives.

A related federal policy theme was the desire to have inclusionary housing recognized as a means of implementing the goal of affirmatively furthering fair housing. AFFH guidance is eagerly awaited from HUD.

Some more specific highlights/quotes from my experience of the conference (we had other engagements and didn’t make it to every event):

  • Patrick Maier of the Innovative Housing Institute, the organizing group for the conference, opened by summing up inclusionary housing’s message as “If you’re good enough to work here you’re good enough to live here.” He also noted that “even with record numbers of homes standing empty, too many people have no place to call home.”
  • Deputy Secretary of HUD Ron Sims (look for a Shelterforce interview in our next issue) gave a characteristically impassioned and engaging opening keynote, in which he said that inclusionary housing was no less than how we are going to sustain the grand American experiment in non-ethnically based democracy. He spoke of his childhood in Garden Springs, a small community between two railroad tracks outside of Spokane, Wash., saying “No one cared about us. If it had fallen off the map there would have been a celebration. No one thought people like us have value. Your work tells people like me we have value.”
  • Marquez (also look for an upcoming Shelterforce interview in our next issue), along with discussing the larger federal climate of collaboration and crossing silos, spoke of policies that get in the way of inclusionary approaches. Tax credit policy encourages segregation, for example, she noted, because in many places competition for credits is so fierce that only a perfect score will win them. So they are all sited in a concentrated poverty area because that gets points. Developers site based on where they can get a tax credit award. If they can’t they’ll move on.

Marquez also called on those present to help with the changing of how HUD works by reaching out to have meetings with local HUD officials. “I would love if you would go to your communities and meet with your HUD office,” she said. “It might be difficult. I understand. It’s not like HUD was answering my calls either. Tell me if you’ve reached out and I’ll follow up and make it happen.”

  • At a lunch panel with Alan Mallach and Nico Calovita, authors of the new Lincoln Institute book Inclusionary Housing in International Perspective, Nico spoke of incorporating land value recapture-in other words retaining some of the increased value of land that results from public actions, as a way of funding inclusionary housing. Alan spoke of the mixed-tenure, mixed-income models in condo buildings in France.
  • HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing John Trasviña reassured those eager for regulation on how the duty to affirmatively further fair housing applies across the agency’s programs. “I’d forgotten how slowly things move in government,” he quipped. “Loathe the bureaucracy, love the bureaucrat.” But, reiterating something Marquez had said, he insisted that they delay was not just procedural, but the result of a substantial agency wide conversation that was going to result in something unprecedented. “When it happens, it won’t be another failure,” he said. “It’ll bring together all of HUD’s mission.” Some attendees remained skeptical, however.

He also spoke of restarting HUD’s commitment to enforcement and supporting the Section 3 hiring requirements and expanding them beyond public housing.

  • Mariia Zimmerman of the Office of Sustainable Communities spoke of the need for better equity performance measures, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of DOT, Beth Osborne, spoke of the move to thinking of affordable transportation and location efficiency, and all the changes that need to ripple out from that, including closer collaboration between housers and transit advocates.

A few questions, like permanent affordability and the weaknesses in existing research on inclusionary zoning effects, weren’t raised as prominently as they should have been. But there was substantial food for thought and interesting dialogue.

Were you there? What were the highlights for you? What did you learn? What are you bringing back to your community?

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


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