Q&A: Can inclusionary zoning keep low-car neighborhoods diverse?

Vivian Satterfield of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and Justin Buri of Housing Land Advocates, two leaders in Oregon’s campaign for inclusionary zoning.
(Photos by M.Andersen)

First, Northwest 23rd. Then Southeast Hawthorne. Then Northeast Alberta. Then North Williams.

One after another, Portland’s formerly affordable neighborhoods have seen the rising appeal of low-car life drive their mortgages and rents sky-high, at least by local standards. But what’s to be done?

Vivian Satterfield and Justin Buri say they’ve got a city-level policy suggestion that can help. Their main problem is that in Oregon, it’s banned by state law.

I sat down this month with the pair – Satterfield is associate director for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Buri is a board member for Housing Land Advocates, and both get around largely by bicycle – to talk about a concept, inclusionary zoning, that might require all developers within certain areas to include lower-priced, income-restricted units in their new buildings.

The policy is being used in a few hundred U.S. cities, but it’s entirely banned in two states: Texas and Oregon. Buri and Satterfield are part of a coalition that’s working to end our state-level ban.

We asked them why.

BikePortland: Is income diversity something we should do because we want to help poor people, or is it something that helps everyone?

Vivian Satterfield: Concentrated poverty is bad for everybody in society, and those effects trickle thorugh no matter what. Mixed-income communities mean that we all have access to people of different work ethics, different backgrounds, different experiences. It makes having preconceived notions or discriminatory thoughts much more difficult. Concentrated poverty is where we see society’s greatest ills.

“Teachers should be able to live in the same school districts where they teach. Your bank teller should be someone who lives a block from you. The person who bags your groceries should be someone you meet on the bus.”
— Vivian Satterfield, inclusionary zoning advocate

Justin Buri: People tend to stay poor if they are surrounded by poverty.

VS: Teachers should be able to live in the same school districts where they teach. Your bank teller should be someone who lives a block from you. The person who bags your groceries should be someone you meet on the bus.

As the daughter of an immigrant: The American dream for immigrant families isn’t necessarily to have a white picket fence and two kids. It’s to do better than your parents. Inclusionary zoning is a good way to open that door and keep it propped open. That’s why I care about it.

JB: As a 30-something white bicyclist with a beard, I don’t want to live in a neighborhood where I look around and see everyone who looks exactly like me.

VS (gestures at her and Buri): Two sides of the same page.

BP: What’s the connection to transportation?

VS: It gives folks more opportunities to be able to access transportation. If someone does have a car, it gives someone a chance to leave it at home. It allows transit-oriented developments to really be shared by folks of a whole spectrum of class and incomes.

“The market very rarely provides for integrated communities. And when it does, it’s usually either because a market is gentrifiying or it’s declining.”
— Justin Buri

BP: OK, so that’s why you think inclusionary zoning matters. How exactly would it work?

JB: In new, private-market developments, it sets aside a certain percentage of those as affordable to people of lower or middle incomes. It’s usually somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

BP: So if I’m a developer and I make a new unit crappy enough or small enough that people aren’t willing to pay as much for it, does that count?

VS: Some policies have smaller units.

JB: There are over 400 different jurisdictions with some sort of inclusionary zoning policy in the United States, and no two are alike. The big distinction is that some are considered voluntary and others are considered mandatory. Both usually use incentives, which can include things like tax abatements, density bonuses.

Should biking be a luxury?
(Photo by J.Maus/BikePortland)

VS: Things to do with parking.

JB: Fast track permitting.

VS: Developer candy. Things they want.

JB: But the problem is that because in Portland we have a progressive planning ethos, we’ve eliminated some of those restrictions, so we don’t have the tradeoffs any more. Which is good for a number of reasons, but it makes voluntary inclusionary zoning more difficult, because you have less goodies.

BP: If you assume that real estate is a perfect market, which of course it isn’t, seems like the effect of this is going to be that other units in the building will rise slightly in price, so the other units stay cheap. Doesn’t that just squeeze out the middle?

JB: Some jurisdictions want to target certain income levels, depending on what the need is.

VS: Inclusionary zoning really helps integrate moderate incomes. This is for folks who are just teetering on the edge. It can free up public funds to target housing for lower incomes.

JB: The market very rarely provides for integrated communities. And when it does, it’s usually either because a market is gentrifiying or it’s declining. Basically, the idea is when you put in a public investment like a new light rail or streetcar or a new park or even better lighting, better sidewalks, you want to ensure that those investments don’t involuntarily displace the people who live there.

VS: Investment without displacement.

Source: Census Bureau.
(Graphic by BikePortland.)

BP: How much difference can this policy possibly make? Such a tiny share of the city gets redeveloped each year, and those are the only units that’d be affected, right?

JB: The most difficult part of this is that there are very few immediate impacts that people can actually see. It is long-term planning – what are the impacts going to be 20 or 30 years out?

BP: If BikePortland readers like this idea, what should they do?

VS: They should talk to their family and friends a little bit more about housing and why it’s important. Being a Millennial myself, I don’t see myself achieving the opportunity of owning my own home. How long can I stay in Portland as a renter before I get priced out?

JB: Talk to your legislators. Ask them if they are familiar with what inclusionary zoning is.

BP: You’re saying people should look up their state legislator’s name on the internet, call them up and say, “I don’t know much about inclusionary zoning, but I’m worried about the end of income-diverse neighborhoods, and I read about it on BikePortland and it seems cool”?

JB: Aboslutely. You’d be surprised how far that goes. Legislators actually do want to hear what their constituents are thinking.

Qs & As edited for brevity. You can learn more about the details of inclusionary zoning policy in Oregon on the Housing Land Advocates’ website.

— The Real Estate Beat is a weekly column. Read past installments here. We are looking for a sponsorship partner. If interested, please call Jonathan at (503) 706-8804.

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