ITHACA, N.Y. — ​Recently, Mayor Svante Myrick talked with the Ithaca Times’ Josh Brokaw about State Street Triangle, bringing up inclusionary zoning as one of the things the project should have.

Previously, the Voice wrote about inclusionary zoning as part of an interview with Community Planner Lynn Truame a few months back.

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Since this will likely be coming up in the next several months, it’s a good time to explore in more detail what it is, and how it works.

Inclusionary zoning can be done one of two ways, either by stipulating that a builder/developer can’t build anything without having units or paying into a fund, or by giving them an extra incentive, like reduced permit fees, being able to build one floor higher or a reduction in parking requirements if they include affordable housing. Most communities opt for the latter approach.

The pros are an integration of affordable units into market-rate developments and a supply of affordable housing. The cons are that, if handled the wrong way, it can stop all development, affordable and market-rate; and on the other end of the spectrum, if the benefits are too generous, it can actually reduce the supply the affordable housing by encouraging the tear down older, lower-cost buildings in favor of new higher-cost ones with a small number of affordable units. In sum, nothing in an inclusive zoning ordinance can be taken lightly.

An inclusionary zoning program requires the support of neighboring communities so that developers don’t just skip to the next town over to escape the burden, and the program must be designed to encourage developers to build while ensuring there’s plenty of affordable units on the market. For example, here’s Burlington, Vermont’s ordinance:

“The program applies to all new market-rate developments of 5 or more homes and to any converted non-residential structures that result in at least 10 homes.  The affordable housing set aside is 15 to 25% of the units, depending on the average price of the market-rate homes – with the higher percentage placed on the most expensive developments.  The ordinance does not allow fee in-lieu payments or land donations, but will allow developers to provide the affordable housing off-site at 125% of the on-site obligation.  The ordinance provides a range of incentives including fee waivers and a 15-25% density and lot coverage bonus. Affordable homes are targeted to households earning 75% or less area median income (AMI) and rented at 65% or less AMI.  Developers can sale or rent the homes for more as long as the average of affordable homes sold or rented are at or below the target household income.  Affordable homes are price controlled for 99 years.

Burlington partners with a nonprofit – the Champlain Housing Trust – in the administration of its program and is able to minimize in-house administrative staff time for the program (committing only 10% of one full time employee). However, more funds are needed to support the monitoring and enforcement of affordable homes.”

So if this were Ithaca for the sake of equivalent example, let’s say a developer downtown is thinking of a 40-unit market-rate non-luxury apartment building, that maxes out the lot area and height of a currently-existing (hypothetical) zone. They would be able to build 46 units/15% larger as a bonus, but 6 units would have to be affordable housing. They could also build 46 market-rate units on-site, and build 8 affordable units off-site at a location okayed by the city.

The affordable units would be targeted at individuals making 65% or less of AMI, which in Tompkins County is 65% of about $53k, or $34,500/year. Some units could be more or less affordable, as long as they average to 65% AMI. It stays that way for 99 years. The units would be managed by an organization like INHS.

Or, the developer could build a hotel, office, or other non-residential building without giving up money or space for affordable housing, but they also get no zoning bonus. Burlington’s law isn’t designed to be a barrier for development, it’s designed to be an incentive to include affordable housing in new projects. However, there are definitely opponents to inclusionary zoning even among affordable housing advocates, who say that a revised and expanded Section 8 program would be more effective.

Note that Burlington’s law is just one example. No one ordinance fits all municipalities, and each community has its own aspects to address  – in Ithaca’s case, that means tailoring the inclusionary zoning for each neighborhood, determining what size and types of projects have to pay into the fund (because Cornell will probably file a lawsuit if it affects their projects), establishing affordability guidelines that encompass both poor and middle-income families, and whether fees can be paid into a housing fund in lieu of housing. What works in Downtown probably won’t work in Belle Sherman, and what works in Fall Creek wouldn’t be effective in Collegetown. It’s going to be an intensive design process.

Now back to the original question – is Campus Advantage willing to play? It’s not one that anyone can answer just yet. The Austin-based company is still determining their next move.

But, barring some left-field shocker on Tuesday, expect Myrick to be sharing more of his and his staff’s zoning ideas in the next couple years.

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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.