Inclusionary Housing: A Critical Step Toward Equity

Inclusionary housing policies can harness the market in the name of equity. These policies, which require or incentivize the provision of affordable housing along with market rate residential development, are […]

Inclusionary housing policies can harness the market in the name of equity. These policies, which require or incentivize the provision of affordable housing along with market rate residential development, are reactions against the social ills fostered by the segregation of low-income households in large subsidized developments and by “exclusionary zoning,” where localities have deliberately adopted a zoning plan that does not allow for more affordable types of housing.

Inclusionary housing is not just an affordable housing policy. It’s an equity policy. Rather than counting its success in units, or being driven by where the most affordable land is or where there is no community resistance, it is coupled with market-rate development, meaning it generates affordable units in locations that are attractive in the marketplace. In adopting an inclusionary housing policy, localities embrace inclusion more actively, as opposed to their usual role as the often-reluctant receivers of subsidies from a top-down federal system.

Achieving this integration may make the difference between having a school system that is integrated by race and economic level and having one that continues to be effectively segregated (see Heather Schwartz’s Integrating Schools Is a Matter of Policy). An inclusionary housing policy can put housing in a well-planned and growing community within the reach of workers who can fill local jobs rather than clogging the region’s roads to get to them from distant, less-desirable, but more affordable areas.

About 500 jurisdictions have put some form of inclusionary housing policy in place since the first inclusionary housing policies were developed in Virginia’s Fairfax County, Maryland’s Montgomery County, and several Bay Area counties in the early 1970s, but most of these jurisdictions are in states that have some sort of fair share or inclusionary housing mandate for localities to fulfill, such as in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois.

California’s “housing element,” which must be included in local general plans, requires cities and counties to plan for the housing needs of “all segments of the community.” In New Jersey, the Mount Laurel court decisions led to the creation of the Council on Affordable Housing and the subsequent rule making that compelled New Jersey jurisdictions to fulfill municipal fair share obligations. Inclusionary housing programs were a major vehicle of choice for doing so. (Ed. note: Recent legislation eliminates COAH, so the future of fair-share housing in New Jersey is in limbo.) In Massachusetts, Chapter 40B, often referred to as the “Anti-Snob Zoning Act,” provides for a builder’s appeal in the event of a rejection of a development that included affordable units by a locality that hasn’t met a 10 percent affordability requirement. It has resulted in the creation of over 27,000 houses or apartments affordable to households with incomes below 80 percent of area median income.

There is a new emphasis today at the federal level on social inclusion and affirmatively furthering fair housing. There is also new focus on coordinating federal investments in transportation, housing, and the environment through regional plans that are sustainable and inclusive as described in the Sustainable Communities Initiative. What has yet to materialize is a set of federal incentives and expectations to guide states and localities in efficient and effective use of federal resources in these areas.

In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama said, “We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what’s best for the economy, not politicians.”

The administration should consider the use of inclusionary housing strategies in growing and redeveloping areas as a key criterion in choosing those projects and allocating those resources.

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