Pittsburgh’s Orwellian ‘inclusionary zoning’

Pittsburgh’s Orwellian ‘inclusionary zoning’

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has signed legislation that expands an “inclusionary zoning” law into Bloomfield and Polish Hill from neighboring Lawrenceville. It’s being billed as an “affordable housing” law.

But, and as usually is the case with such “progressive” policies, it more likely will have the exact opposite effect, resulting in less and more expensive housing overall, a large bolus of research suggests.

As one media account describes it, the expanded law “requires 10 percent of new construction or renovation projects that produce over 20 housing units to remain affordable for qualified, low-income individuals — whether they are for rent or for sale.”

And there’s talk of expanding the law citywide. 

“This is what it means when we say creating a city for all,” the mayor said in a May 2 signing ceremony. “This is what we mean when we say a safe, thriving community where everyone feels welcome. This is how you get there.”

Talk about Orwellian. For as Manhattan Institute scholar Connor Harris concluded in an exhaustive review of available research:

“First, inclusionary zoning programs generally produce very few units and can be, at most, a minor part of affordable-housing policies,” he wrote. “Second, some empirical studies, as well as a few case studies such as New York City and Portland, [Ore.], suggest that, at least sometimes, inclusionary zoning can cause substantial reductions in housing construction.

“Furthermore,” Harris says, “market-rate housing construction, even at the top end of the market, does improve housing opportunities in lower-income neighborhoods. This raises the possibility that the harm caused by inclusionary zoning-induced reductions in market-rate construction may outweigh [such zoning’s] direct benefit, even to those eligible for subsidized housing.

“Finally,” Harris concludes, “there is scanty evidence for one key justification of inclusionary zoning: that new development exploits neighborhoods by driving local rents up.”

Do note that “affordable housing” activists regularly have used the “exploitation” argument to push for “inclusionary zoning.”

Concluded another, more equivocal, review of the available research, by scholar Emily Hamilton at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center:

“Inclusionary zoning, a policy intended to address the problem of households struggling to afford housing, may actually increase house prices generally,” she found. “No studies of its effects indicate that it increases housing supply or contributes to broadly lower prices.

“It benefits a small portion of low- and moderate-income households rather than targeting aid at the households that need it most.”

Hamilton offers that serious improvement to housing affordability “requires substantial land-use policy reform that will allow significantly more housing construction, including low-cost housing typologies.”

“Under land-use policy that allows new housing to be built in response to increasing demand, inclusionary zoning would be a clear tax on construction because density bonuses wouldn’t provide an offset to developers.

“Even under vastly liberalized housing policy, some households will struggle to afford shelter,” Hamilton reminds. “But taxing housing construction with the goal of creating more abundant housing for people of relatively low-income levels doesn’t make sense.”

Then there’s Joe Cortright, a researcher at Impresa, a Portland economic consulting firm specializing in cities:

“We understand the political attractiveness of inclusionary zoning programs — they don’t seem to cost any money:  You require developers to build one or two affordable housing units for every 10 new apartments that they build,” he writes.

“It’s the kind of solution that is congruent with a kind of morality-tale explanation of housing unaffordability — it’s the fault of greedy developers and heartless landlords, so it’s only fair to somehow dragoon them into paying for the solution.

“While showy and contentious, however, the real world results of inclusionary zoning have been, at best, paltry and the risks [are] that inclusionary requirements will depress housing supply – and thereby drive up rents … .”

How troubling it is that city leaders and the “affordable housing” cheerleaders are either ignorant of the voluminous research that raises serious questions about “inclusionary zoning” or are purposely ignoring it because it doesn’t fit their “progressive” narrative.

But what’s even more troubling is that the media have accepted, without question, the illusory “benefits” of “inclusionary zoning” as an article of faith.

George Orwell indeed would be proud.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).