Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer

Years in the making, New Haven’s first inclusionary zoning law — which will require and incentivize developers to include affordable housing units in all new market-rate projects — is now set to become city policy next month.

The city’s Affordable Housing Task Force first recommended the implementation of inclusionary zoning policies in January 2019. Introducing the legislation became a major priority for Mayor Justin Elicker’s administration. The law was formally presented to the public in its current form in June 2021. After a number of contentious public hearings and debates within the City Plan Commission and the Board of Alders’ Legislation Committee, the policy finally passed with a 25-1-1 vote on the floor of the full Board last Tuesday. 

The bill mandates that future market-rate housing complexes include a certain portion of units with rents set at 50 percent of the Area Median Income. This portion will be determined by the strength of the market in the neighborhood, with stricter requirements in the downtown area where luxury developments are common. This is intended to encourage mixed-income development and combat historic redlining. The law will take effect on Feb. 18. 

“This ordinance will make sure that, in the core of our city, future growth and development will benefit everyone,” Ward 7 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 said at the Tuesday night meeting. “We will no longer have segregated luxury developments. Instead, we will have mixed-income development that protects those who need it most… Everyone deserves to live in a safe neighborhood with good access to jobs, transit and housing.”

Sabin called this inclusionary zoning plan “one of the most important pieces of legislation that this board has voted on in a number of years.” Many alders emphasized the centrality of the ordinance to the board’s legislative agenda, in which they pledged to address the city’s housing crisis.

Under the new ordinance, all market-rate developments of more than 10 units within the “core” downtown zone of New Haven will be required to make 10 percent of their units affordable — with rents at or below 50 percent AMI — and reserve an additional five percent of their units for housing voucher holders. For a two-bedroom apartment, an “affordable” unit under the requirements of the new bill would have a monthly rent of $1,090 or less city-wide, according to the Connecticut Department of Housing.

In the “strong” zone, which includes East Rock, Long Wharf, Dixwell and Dwight, as well as parts of Wooster Square, Newhallville, the Hill and Fair Haven, only five percent of the units must be affordable. Throughout the rest of the city, only larger-scale building projects with more than 75 units will be required to make five percent of their units affordable. 

Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker emphasized that the higher percentages set for the neighborhoods with the strongest real estate markets are intended to “prevent future luxury developments in areas like Downtown and East Rock from becoming de facto gated communities,” increasing the supply of affordable housing across the whole city. 

Solidifying the details of this inclusionary zoning policy was a “balancing act,” according to City Plan Director Aicha Woods ARC ’97, and required incorporating public testimony and feedback from housing justice advocates, developers and New Haven residents. Woods said that the goal was to ensure as much affordable housing as possible while not “creating an environment that would potentially stifle development” and reduce the overall housing supply.

In his speech of support, Decker noted that this new ordinance was progressive even in comparison to similar inclusionary zoning programs across the country, setting an unusually high threshold for affordability. Inclusionary zoning policies typically set the rent for ‘affordable’ units at “70 percent or 80 percent or even higher” of the AMI, he said. 

An in-lieu fee will be available as an option to developers who do not fulfill the requirements of the policy. According to Livable City Initiative director Arlevia Samuel, the city will then use these amassed funds to subsidize housing assistance nonprofits and smaller affordable building developments across the city. 

Those who comply with the inclusionary zoning requirements will receive a number of benefits, including a waiving of parking minimums, tax abatements and permission to build denser units. 

These incentives were a cause of debate at the Board of Alders meeting, with Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa, who casted the single dissenting vote, arguing that the bill was too lenient on developers and would be exploited.

“I feel like we’re constantly giving developers a break,” Festa said. “What we’re fighting for is not even enough affordable housing… You know what the developers are going to do? They’re going to increase the market rate rental in order to make up for what they’re losing in affordable housing. And we in this city are giving them all these tax breaks.”

In response to Festa, Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison argued that the incentives were the only way to be in the position to “ask these people who are building housing with their own money to make sure that there’s affordable [units] in there.” 

Many alders who spoke in support of the ordinance stated that although it represents a step in the right direction, it is in no way enough to solve the affordable housing crisis. Alder Devin Avshalom-Smith shared that in his Newhallville ward, low-income residents can “barely stand” the 50 percent AMI rents set as affordable under this new legislation, calling the bill a situation in which “you get something or you get nothing at all.” 

“In Fair Haven, this should have happened yesterday,” Ward 16 Alder José Crespo said.

The bill as amended at the Board of Alders meeting includes a provision in which the market environment will be re-evaluated every two years. According to Decker, this is with the hope of being able to raise the affordability percentage requirements and adjust the map to add more land to the core and strong zones in the future.

Michael Piscitelli, the city’s economic development administration, told the News that he was “very encouraged and grateful” that the plan had been approved by the Board of Alders, believing that it will have “significant benefit” to the residents of New Haven. 

His team will be working in the months ahead to collaborate with developers and begin to implement the new requirements into the zoning process. Woods shared that the City Plan Department has developed a manual outlining the procedures for carrying out the inclusionary zoning policy, focusing on specifics of the developer application process, incentives, enforcement, tenant selection and marketing. 

“This is an important step forward, but is not in any way a comprehensive solution to providing deeply affordable housing,” Woods said. “However, it is really based in changing some of the legacy land use patterns in our city…to provide opportunities for residents to live in places that they formerly would be excluded from.”

On Feb. 2, the City Plan Commission will hold a special public hearing to evaluate the implementation manual for the approved inclusionary zoning bill. 

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.