Inclusionary Zoning: The Queen City's Cure?

Inclusionary Zoning: The Queen City's Cure?

Written by Kibrett Facey

The city of Buffalo has undergone a number of transformations in hopes of making it the bustling city that it once was years ago. While these changes lend to a thriving city, there is a population of the Queen City that has been neglected.  Local rent and housing prices are skyrocketing as poverty in the area continues to barrage Buffalonians attempting to make ends meet. New housing is built but typically these units boast a luxurious price that is much too high for Buffalonians of lower incomes to afford. Gentrification and displacement are running rampant as urban revitalization serves more privileged society members.

So, how do we combat this? The fight begins with inclusionary zoning--a plausible method to ensure that there is steady creation of affordable housing to accompany new developments. Under inclusionary zoning policies, a small percentage of units in any new, city-approved market-rate development must be affordable for low-to-moderate income families. These affordable units also must be comparable to the other units in type, quality, and access to amenities. Simply put, affordable units should not pale in comparison to their market-rate counterparts.

In Buffalo, a cohort of forward-thinking organizations has been pushing forth potential inclusionary zoning policies. This cohort, known as The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition, includes members of the Partnership for the Public Good, PUSH Buffalo, Heart of the City Neighborhoods, LISC Buffalo, HOME, and Open Buffalo. In a city that is experiencing many disparities and increased socio-economic segregation, this coalition is pushing inclusionary zoning in hopes of propelling economic integration.

In the Inclusionary Zoning report recently prepared by The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition, there is a discussion about current national trends and the toll that they have taken in the Queen City. There has been a roaring preference for cities as opposed to suburbs by residents, thus onsetting flurries of new investments. Public spending done in areas such as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, downtown Buffalo, and the waterfront has given way to spurts of new developments and attractions. But like all new, shiny toys, there is a cost that must be paid. The price that Buffalo has begun to pay comes in the form of shortages of affordable housing and augmenting gentrification and displacement.

Did you know that Buffalo has experienced the seventh largest  increase in rental affordability burden? Families are now spending 28.4 percent of their incomes on rent. In a household with an income of $50,000, that means that an additional $1,400 will be tacked onto rent annually. There is also data that shows that there has been an increase of 48 percent in the Fair Market Rent.

Given the especially high poverty rates in the city, Buffalonians experience unique challenges. The median household income in Buffalo is $21,815. If we measure affordability as the ability to use 30% of one’s income to pay rent, then we are looking at $545 in rent per month. In our city, this is unrealistic and less than ideal. More than half of Buffalo’s rental housing is priced at $600 or more. The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition reported that 61 percent of renters have an income of less than $35,000 with approximately 78 percent of them spending more than 30% of their income on rent. It seems that in Buffalo, the only method of survival is living beyond your means.

This is a detriment that is far from being mitigated by the construction of new apartments. Two developments that are representative of the non-inclusionary pricing of newer apartments are units at Hydraulic Lofts on 500 Seneca and 301 Ohio Street Apartments. Two bedroom units at Hydraulic Lofts will cost you anywhere in between a whopping $1,075 to $2,000. Similarly, a two bedroom apartment at 301 Ohio Street Apartments will do damage upwards of $2,495. While there are cheaper units that exist, they are often of lower quality and put renters at risk of things such as caved in roofs and mold. Quality has become something that renters must push aside to make their monthly payments. These unaffordable, new developments also ensure that renters are concentrated in racially segregated, high poverty neighborhoods.

To remedy these issues of unaffordability and segregation, The Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition is advocating for a policy that requires developers of ten or more units to reserve 30 percent of units for people with an income falling below 60 percent of the City’s median income. This policy could also allow great incentives for developers such as permits that would allow developers to build at a higher density as well as quicker processes in acquiring necessary permits. Similar programs have had great success in major cities such as Chicago, Illinois and Boston, Massachusetts.

The resurgence of Buffalo will only truly be successful if it is inclusive. All citizens of Buffalo, despite income level, deserve the opportunity to live in sustainable neighborhoods for affordable prices. With the stipulations put forth in the Inclusionary Report, the future of the Queen City could be brighter than anyone could have ever envisaged.