Editor’s Note: Ithaca’s City Hall is now considering adopting “incentive” or “inclusionary” zoning as a tool to combat the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Last week, we wrote two stories detailing the extent of Ithaca’s high rents crisis and the problems they create for low-income workers. 

In this piece, Brian Crandall talks to Community Planner Lynne Truame about the proposed incentive/inclusionary zoning solutions — how it might work, how it might not, and where we go from here.


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So how does this work?

Q: It’s no secret that affordability is a big issue in Ithaca. One of the ways that the IURA proposes to address this is through incentive zoning and/or inclusionary zoning. What exactly are those?

A: Incentive zoning is a local land use policy that provides inducements to developers for development projects that will provide a community-wide benefit, such as affordable housing, day care centers, parks, etc.

These inducements may include a reduction or relaxation of normal zoning requirements (density bonuses, height bonuses, reductions in parking requirements, reductions in set-back or open space requirements), or an expedited approval process. Inclusionary zoning is a local land use policy that specifically links approvals for the development of market-rate housing to the creation of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households. Inclusionary zoning may be voluntary, in which case it is a form of incentive zoning, or it may be mandatory.

See related: New report shows just how hard poor must work to live in Ithaca

See related: The daunting math facing workers hoping to live in downtown Ithaca

Q: Is this a common practice? I think I’ve heard of New York City having a similar program.

A: Inclusionary housing policies exist in nearly 500 local jurisdictions in 27 states and the District of Columbia. New York City is one municipality that has inclusionary zoning. New Jersey has a statewide inclusionary policy.

Concerns over denser housing?

Q: People in Ithaca are cautious about denser housing in their neighborhoods, and there’s concern that growth in the city could harm their quality of life. What parts of the city are being considered for this? How do you balance incentive zoning with those quality of life concerns?

A: There is no specific proposal on the table at this time. The purpose of the discussion at the Planning Committee meeting is to start thinking about whether Common Council would be interested enough in exploring this idea for staff to devote time to doing the necessary research to create a specific proposal.

If [the] Council is interested in pursing this, one way a program might be structured is to offer certain incentives in certain areas of the city and different incentives in other areas. For example, not every area of the city has minimum parking requirements, so a reduction in parking requirements only works as an incentive in those areas that still have those minimum requirements. Similarly, an increase in allowable height might be an incentive that works in the downtown core, but would neither be effective, nor desirable, in other areas.

Would this be mandatory?

Q: Some of these inclusionary zoning programs are voluntary, and some are mandatory, right? As in, developers have to follow through with a certain percentage of affordable units in order to build, and in other cases there’s a sort of incentive or reward? Could Ithaca have both, or does it have to one or the other?

A: Yes, some municipalities have mandatory programs and others are purely voluntary. Mandatory programs have produced vastly larger numbers of units than voluntary programs have, but again, it’s too soon to say what type of program might work best in Ithaca. In theory, I believe it would be possible to design a program that would include both mandatory and voluntary components, but without doing additional research I couldn’t be certain of that.

Q: I imagine there would be some sort of size threshold, right? Someone building a house for themselves on West Hill probably won’t have to include affordable housing.

A: That’s correct. Nearly all programs in other areas do have a size threshold.

Crandall plays devil’s advocate

Q: So let me throw out the example where someone’s building a new apartment building in Collegetown. It sounds like one option is some kind of incentive or requirement to have affordable housing in the building. But I don’t know too many working adults who wants to be surrounded by college kids. What other options are out there for a developer? How else can the city capitalize on Collegetown’s strong developer interest?

A: Many programs in other areas allow the development of the required affordable units off site. Several also allow the conversion of existing off-site market rate units to affordable units, to satisfy the requirement. I think that makes a lot of sense for Ithaca, given exactly the situation you describe with the majority of our student housing being concentrated in a particular area of the city. If we were to allow off-site development, we would need to establish requirements for the location of those units, though, because one of the benefits of inclusionary zoning is the dispersal of affordable units throughout the municipality — we would not want to create a situation where all of the new affordable units could be developed in a single neighborhood.

Q: Playing devil’s advocate here, but do you think it will have much of an impact? A developer can just look outside of the incentive area, right? What’s going to stop someone from just building their apartments or houses in Lansing instead of Ithaca?

A: You’re quite right about this. Interestingly, though, the 2007 Housing Strategy for Tompkins County, which was developed by the County and adopted by Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, the Ithaca Town Board, and the Lansing Town Board, lists inclusionary and incentive zoning as “Strategy One” in the effort to promote affordable housing locally. If Common Council is interested in pursuing this idea, I suspect we will be talking with other nearby municipalities about how a local program could be designed. Housing affordability is a regional problem; it’s not something that can be solved by the City in isolation of with a single program.

Looking at the timeline

Q: So this all sounds intriguing. This is all still in the exploratory phase? What would need to happen to see this type of zoning put into effect?

A: Yes, we are in the very preliminary stages of this discussion; tonight’s Planning Committee meeting will be the first time Council members have even considered the idea. If there is interest on Council in exploring this further, staff will begin to research the issue in depth. As you can imagine, there are plenty of legal and policy considerations involved in pursuing something like this, so it isn’t a program that can go into effect overnight.

There will be a great deal of discussion involved as this moves forward… if it moves forward. And if we do this, we need to make sure we have designed a program that is going to really benefit the community, and not one that produces some unanticipated negative impact.

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.