Inclusionary zoning policy sparks heated debate at Alders meeting
A piece of housing legislation is under debate that would require developers in New Haven to make a specific portion of their units affordable — to some residents, this proposal is too radical, while others believe it is not going far enough.
Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer
New Haven officials are weighing a highly controversial zoning policy that would mandate that new market-rate developments in the city include a certain allocation of affordable units.
Building off of recommendations provided by the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force in 2019, this inclusionary zoning policy is one part of the Board of Alders’ legislative agenda item to address the city’s housing crisis. If the proposal is passed, city developers will be required and incentivized to have a specific percentage of their units be affordable, a figure determined by the strength of the market in the neighborhood they are building in.
At a virtual meeting of the Board of Alders’ Legislation Committee on Tuesday night, 19 New Haven residents — including local grassroots activists, lawyers, Affordable Housing Commission members, students and real estate developers — gave testimony in response to the ordinance. The Legislation Committee will debate the bill at least one more time at its next meeting before the policy is voted on, a move that Ward 9 Alder and committee chair Charles Decker GRD ’18 said is necessary in order to process public opinion and the complexities of the legislation.
“[The policy] fosters mixed-income development rather than 100 percent market-rate,” City Plan Director Aicha Woods ARC ’97 said during her team’s presentation on Tuesday night. “It importantly provides affordable housing in areas of opportunities, with greater access to jobs and services, amenities and schools… The point of it is really to reduce racial and economic segregation by providing opportunities for people to live in high quality projects in high opportunity areas.”
This legislation is the combined work of Wood’s department, the Economic Development Administration, the Livable City Initiative council and the mayor’s office, with external input from the real estate consulting group HR&A Advisors. Woods defined inclusionary zoning laws as any policies that “create affordable housing by encouraging and requiring developers to set aside a percentage of housing units at below market rates.” She also noted that “hundreds” of cities across the country have already adopted these policies.
Tiers, AMI and incentives: the details of the proposal
Woods explained that the first iteration of the ordinance was presented in an April 2020 report, which was then workshopped with developers and local officials over the following year as the market recovered from the pandemic. The proposal was then presented to the City Plan Commission in July of this year, where it was voted on favorably.
As the policy took shape, the required level of affordability was increased to make it “more progressive” than similar inclusionary zoning laws in other cities, according to Woods.
The threshold for “affordable” units in New Haven’s policy is that rent must be feasible for families making 50 percent or less of the Area Median Income, or AMI. This would mean a monthly rent of $1,090 or less for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the Connecticut Department of Housing. In typical inclusionary zoning plans from other cities, Woods said, these thresholds can be as high as 80 percent AMI, providing “workforce housing” instead of housing that is truly affordable for residents at lower income levels.
In the ordinance, the city is split into zones based upon the strength of the market, with an exception for public land, where all developments of greater than 10 units will have to have a full 20 percent of their units qualify as affordable under the AMI restriction.
The downtown area, which has experienced a recent boom in often-luxury apartment developments, is considered the “core” Tier 1 of the plan — the requirement for developments of 10 or more units will be for 10 percent of the units to be affordable, with an extra five percent of units put aside for housing voucher holders. In the “strong” Tier 2, which includes East Rock, Long Wharf, Dixwell, Dwight and Wooster Square, as well as parts of Newhallville, the Hill and Fair Haven, the requirement is lowered to five percent of units.
Lastly, in the “remainder” Tier 3, where there is less development, according to Woods, the requirement is that only the complexes with more than 75 units have to include five percent affordable units.
Woods said that this geographical designation, which puts the strongest restrictions on the downtown area, was included in order to push back against historic redlining that “concentrates affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods and excludes it from neighborhoods with a strong market and more opportunities.”
For developers unwilling to follow the set guidelines, the city has put in the option of an in-lieu fee, which will tally up to between $210,000-$225,000 in the “core” markets and $168,000-$176,000 in the “remainder.” Revenue from this fee will go into an affordable housing fund, which Livable City Initiative director Arlevia Samuel said will be used to subsidize housing assistance nonprofits and smaller affordable building developments across the city. The creators of the legislation set this fee high in order to discourage such an opt-out, according to Wood, .
The proposal provides a number of incentives for participating developers, including a waiving of parking minimums and the suspension of certain zoning requirements, which will allow buildings to be both larger overall but with smaller floor space than legislation otherwise allows. A proportional 10-year tax abatement is also included.
According to Woods, if this policy had been in place since 2010, there would already be an additional 120-160 units of affordable housing in the city. The Audubon, a luxury complex on Orange Street, would have single-handedly contributed 40 of these.
Before the public testimonies began, Steve Fontana, deputy director of economic development, urged those on the call to believe in the proposal as a tool that will make a difference in terms of progress in addressing housing affordability and availability in the city.
“I’m sure many of you have heard this term before, but we shouldn’t allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good,” Fontana said. “This proposal relies upon the private sector to continue to make the kind of significant investment they’ve been making in New Haven over the last several years… There are people who may tell you that it’s not enough, and there are others who will be prepared to say that it’s very challenging for us to enact something like this. So I think we sort of have tried to hit the sweet spot.”
Too much or too little? Residents react
Although a few alders asked brief logistical questions to the team behind the proposal, the committee chose overall to dedicate Tuesday’s session to comments from residents, noting that another meeting in the future will allow for further debate on the bill.
One exception was Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, who voiced her concerns that the five to 10 percent requirements for affordable housing were far too modest to address the crisis in the city, emphasizing that neighborhood constituents needed to still have the power to push developers to go past this minimum and not settle for it. Her remarks were later echoed in certain public testimonies.
Later, at the end of the meeting, Ward 13 Alder Rosa Santana came out strongly against the plan, arguing that it was inherently unfeasible in terms of enforcing compliance.
“I’m going to tell you right now, it’s not going to work,” Santana said. “The city did a horrible job in the past of reviewing compliance documents to ensure that the AMIs were reached… It is very difficult to keep developers in line and to ensure that someone from the city is tracking the percentages of units that they’re giving.”
Out of the 19 public testimonies given at the meeting, about half were in complete support of the bill. Among those in favor was Jaime Myers-McPhail, an organizer with community activism group New Haven Rising and a member of the Affordable Housing Commission.
Myers-McPhail argued that the opposition to this legislation from luxury developers is evidence of the necessity for the program, which would force these individuals to include all residents in the “wave of opportunity” that has so far reinforced historic redlining. City officials “must ensure that those who profit from building in our city contribute tangible benefits to historically under-resourced communities.”
One developer was present to give testimony on the call. Darren Seid, a New York-based real estate developer who has a number of projects in New Haven, began his remarks by acknowledging that he had “a bunch of things that are very unpopular to say.” He claimed to be in support of inclusionary zoning in general, but opposed the current structure of the policy on the grounds that it would discourage new development.
“I know stories of [inclusionary zoning] policies coming out that just destroyed investment in beautiful blossoming cities,” Seid said. “And everything that’s going on in New Haven right now is just absolutely incredible. But there’s no shame in saying that the affordable units that we are all discussing do not get built if the investment stops coming into town.”
On the other end of the issue, a number of community members argued that the zoning ordinance as it stands is not enough to truly help those struggling to find housing, pointing to specific structural flaws such as the design of the “market tiers” and the AMI figures used.
Elias Estabrook, another member of the Affordable Housing Commision who said that his testimony represented only his own views, argued that the details of the “strong” Tier 2 category needed to be amended. By placing Dixwell, Dwight, the Hill, Newhallville and Fair Haven in the same group as other more affluent neighborhoods, with equal incentives for new market-rate development, the ordinance will cause “rising prices, in other words, gentrification” in these lower income areas, he said.
A number of others also emphasized that the AMI used in the calculations for the rents of these “affordable” units was for New Haven County instead of the city of New Haven. In the city itself, the median income is much lower, according to New Haven Legal Aid community organizer Caitlin Maloney, which makes the claim of affordability deceptive.
Maloney also argued that the policy had been developed without “meaningful resident feedback,” instead relying on an outside consulting firm.
Also mentioned were concerns that the incentives for developers will allow them to build cramped and tall structures without adequate parking space.
In the majority of the testimonies, however, the primary concern was that the ordinance would not truly open doors for residents with the thresholds of five to 15 percent mandated in the program.
“They say, ‘we’ll make a couple of units affordable but the rest will be out of reach,’” said Myra Smith, Neighborhood Services Advocate for Christian Community Action. “The people here are struggling. We want to stay here. We want to live here. We want to continue to raise our children here. But it has become impossible.”
Written testimonies and comments on this legislation can be submitted via email to email@example.com.