Addressing affordable housing: Let's start with a conversation on inclusionary zoning
It’s hard to miss talk of affordable housing if you’ve been following the Rochester City Council races this year, and that’s a good thing. Finding a rental to fit into the budget or being able to qualify for a mortgage on even the average priced home on the market are both problems for a growing percentage of the households in Rochester. Clearly, this is an issue that voters are looking to the City Council to address.
One of the ways to address the current lack of options available to a third or more of our households is “inclusionary zoning,” something the current City Council has been seriously discussing. Unfortunately this has been ignored by some of the candidates or somewhat mischaracterized by others.
So what exactly is “inclusionary zoning?” Basically, this is term that includes many ways a city can increase the percentage of homes and apartment units being built, and there are many ways that other municipalities have been able to approach their own affordability gaps. Those that have been most successful have included more incentives than penalties.
If some form of inclusionary zoning is going to be enacted here, the question comes, who will end up paying? After all, developers need a “fair profit” if they are going to spend large amounts of money on new projects, and they can make the case that some fixed costs for a $200,000 home are the same as those for one that can be sold for $500,000.
Does an inclusionary zoning ordinance mean that the developers will have to be the ones who “eat” those costs? Or will current residents have to pay more in property taxes to perhaps cover reduced fees for these affordable units? These are some of the arguments that one or more candidates have suggested as reasons not to bring this kind of approach to our housing concerns here in Rochester.
When looking only at perceived costs of some kind of inclusionary zoning however, it is easy to ignore the kinds of favors we grant those working on some of the exciting development in the city. One example: TIF—Tax Increment Financing—already is a way that we encourage new projects, often focused on “high end” residential units and businesses. What if we were to make any residential or mixed development TIF request conditional on including a fixed percentage of “market rate” affordable housing units in the overall plan? That has worked in many other cities already.
There are many other creative ways that developers around the nation have been able to deal with increasing land, labor, and materials costs—all “excuses” for not building less than high end residences, but all workable if Rochester makes it clear to those who would build here that we are serious about continuing to make this an attractive place to live, for all our workers, at all economic levels.
There is a sign on South Broadway leading into the downtown area that declares Rochester to be an “inclusive city.” This is a noble goal, and we need to be sure that our housing options for all the people coming into our town in the coming years, as well as for those of us already here are within our reach.
So when you are considering your City Council choices on November 8, make it a point to find out where they stand on providing affordable housing incentives for all developers and builders. There are important housing decisions ahead, decisions that will impact us all, so be sure you use your ballot to help make housing affordable for all of us in the years ahead.
Helen Laack is a Rochester resident and Steering Committe member for In the City for Good.
(Cover graphic: The Med City Beat)