Get our free newsletter

How can we best help lots of different kinds of people live here? (Lydia DePillis)

Four years after the enactment of inclusionary zoning laws, which allow developers to build more densely in exchange for selling some units at affordable rates to qualified buyers, we’re still arguing about whether they should exist. Or at least, Matt Yglesias is. Yesterday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s Cheryl Cort rebutted the argument—advanced primarily by the non-profit housing developer Manna, Inc.—that subsidized buyers should be able to sell their houses for market rate after a period of several years. We need indefinite price restrictions, Cort says, to maintain the city’s affordable housing stock.

Yglesias thinks that’s too complicated:

What if instead of doing all this, we let developers charge whatever they want for the apartments they build, thus increasing the quantity of property taxes paid by rich people living in fancy condos? Then we could take that revenue, and either write checks to poor people or else reduce the regressive sales tax rate. You can make housing more “affordable” through regulatory mandates that it be sold cheaply, or else you can increase income (check writing) or increase the affordability of other items (sales tax cut). But my option would seem likely to do more to increase the overall supply of housing in the metro area (making it more affordable for everyone) and also perhaps spur business expansion and job growth.

Really? Cutting little checks to poor people is going to help developers secure financing to build more housing? Can you name any place where that’s actually worked?

Mostly, I’m surprised that Yglesias doesn’t seem to recognize one of the primary goals of inclusionary zoning: Keeping neighborhoods diverse by allowing lower-income people to live there, while simultaneously increasing density (one of Yglesiasbiggest hobbyhorses). Purely spreading around the proceeds from additional property taxes might give poor folks a little more disposable income, but not enough to allow them to buy market-rate condos in places like Columbia Heights, which would quickly become islands of wealth without income restrictions on new developments. In fact, inclusionary zoning is one of the only tools we have to help low-income people share the benefits of a rapidly improving city (and studies have shown that well-designed programs, which are fair to developers, don’t hobble housing creation).

So yes, it’s a more complicated way of making housing affordable. But sometimes public policy requires nuance to achieve specific goals. That’s why the health care bill is over 2,000 pages long.