Inclusionary zoning could soon come to Providence

PolicyLink report recommends development of affordable housing

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Members of the Providence City Council and the Department of Planning and Development will meet Friday to discuss a potential inclusionary zoning ordinance for the city – the last step before the ordinance is formally introduced to the council.

The meeting follows months of consultation with a number of Providence’s affordable housing advocacy groups. On March 16, a representative from national nonprofit research organization PolicyLink presented a report to the City Council on the feasibility of providing increased affordable housing in Providence without profit loss for developers.

PolicyLink, which has also conducted inclusionary zoning studies for New York City and Washington, D.C., recommended that Providence require 12.5 percent of units in high-rise developments to be affordable and 15 percent of units in low-rise developments to be affordable.

In general, housing that costs more than 30 percent of its occupants’ income is considered unaffordable. 40 percent of Providence residents pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

“Low-rise is slightly more economical in general, so you can accommodate more (affordable) housing in the low-rise than the high-rise,” said Ward 1 City Councilman David Segal, who has been a major proponent of an inclusionary zoning ordinance.

The PolicyLink report recommended that half of the affordable housing provided should be affordable for people earning between 80 to 100 percent of the median metropolitan income in Providence, and the other half should be affordable for those with incomes between 60 and 80 percent of this number.

“The metro median is still substantially higher (than the median income in the state), but it would still do something to alleviate some of the pressure,” Segal said.

Coupled with incentives to offset the cost of building affordable housing units to developers, which include density bonuses and reduced parking requirements, an inclusionary zoning ordinance in Providence would not lead to reduced profits from developers, its backers say.

“In order for an inclusionary zoning ordinance to stand up in court, you need to demonstrate that you’re not diminishing a developer’s ability to make full use of their property,” Segal said. “Everything (PolicyLink) did was predicated on the notion that we not stop development or diminish profit margins at all.”

Segal said the City Council seems supportive of the ordinance.

“I’m feeling pretty confident we’re going to be moving forward with something,” Segal said. “Hopefully we’ll achieve some sort of perfect consensus at this meeting.”

Members of the Student Hunger and Homelessness Action Coalition sponsored a “Day of Action” last fall to bring public awareness to the need for affordable housing in the city.

Fiona Heckscher ’09, president of SHHAC, was present at the “Day of Action” and at PolicyLink’s March presentation to the City Council.

She said density is a major concern regarding inclusionary zoning, since some fear a greater density – in addition to mandated affordable units – will “irrevocably change the nature of the neighborhood.”

“I don’t think that’s a legitimate concern,” she said, dismissing the idea that an inclusionary zoning ordinance would result in changed dynamics in neighborhoods the city is “loathe to lose.”

Boston, several West Coast cities and part of Washington, D.C., have adopted inclusionary zoning, and almost all the measures in those cities have been retained and even strengthened since they were introduced. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recently increased Boston’s affordable housing mandate to 13 percent, and on the West Coast, some mandates have reached 20 percent or more.

Segal said statewide studies in California and elsewhere show that inclusionary zoning ordinances do not cause a reduction in new developments.

“If you’re not reducing the total amount (of housing units created), it means a lot of affordable units,” Segal said.

On April 20, Mayor David Cicilline ’83 unveiled a five-year housing plan for Providence and recognized local elected and non-profit leaders who have fought in recent years to bring more affordable housing to the city.

“One of the greatest challenges this nation faces is our affordable housing crisis. It is widely reported and too often ignored,” Cicilline said in a press release.

Affordable housing is the centerpiece of Cicilline’s plan, which proposes the use of Tax Increment Financing and the waiving of fees for affordable housing units where possible, among other strategies.

Bert Cooper, program coordinator for Providence Plan’s Providence Local Learning Partnership, said he doesn’t see anything hindering the eventual passage of the inclusionary zoning ordinance.

There were a few recommendations PolicyLink was unable to provide for the city, Cooper said, such as which administrative agency would be appropriate to oversee implementation of the ordinance.

But “in terms of where it’s going, we’re sort of trying to figure out how to advance it through the City Council and the mayor’s office – we think there’s interest on both sides,” Cooper said.

“I would like to see it move forward, one way or another,” he said.

An unyielding marketLuxury condominium high-rises are being built downtown, but the federal government cut Providence’s housing assistance money by 10 percent in 2006 after reducing it by 6 percent in 2005.

Thomas Deller, director of the Department of Planning and Development, told the Providence Journal in 2005 that about 13 percent of housing in the city is affordable, though most of it is in Providence’s poorest neighborhoods. The state mandate for affordable housing is 10 percent.

If an inclusionary zoning ordinance had been introduced in the city five years ago, Segal said, “we’d have 500, plus or minus, units of affordable housing right now. (Providence’s housing situation) has certainly grown worse over that period,” he added, citing the “very expensive” units going up downtown as an example.

“There’s still a lot in front of us and still a real need to do it,” Segal said.

Heckschler said the Providence housing market is the third most “overheated” in the nation, meaning it has one of the greatest disparities between the price of housing and the quality of what is actually on the market.

“It’s out of control,” Heckschler said. “This is the first year that a minimum-wage earner cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the nation.”

She said an inclusionary zoning ordinance would be a way of “making sure that people creating housing take control as stakeholders” in the Providence housing market.

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