Are Some Inclusionary Zoning Ordinances Promoting Racial Segregation?

Inclusionary zoning is a policy whereby a city or municipality mandates that a certain percentage of units in newly constructed multifamily developments has lower-than-market rents. This practice may also designate a proportion of newly built single family homes within subdivisions to be sold below fair market value.

It would seem that by implementing these zoning requirements, cities would be taking a step forward in making housing fair and affordable to all. However, when these zoning ordinances include stipulations as to who receives first priority in occupying low-rent housing, the policy can be quite the opposite of inclusionary. An article in the New York Times presents some examples from Connecticut and New York where the equality in affordable housing created under inclusionary zoning is called into question.

The cities whose “inclusionary” zoning requirements give residents, former residents, and city employees top priority when disbursing newly affordable units stand to deter fair housing, especially in situations when the city in question lacks socioeconomic diversity. This may be the case with most suburban municipalities, which historically, tend to be largely white, middle-to-high income families.

Due to this lack of diversity, residential priority in suburban “inclusionary” zoning will fail to provide a fair opportunity to affordable housing across race, ethnicity, and economic status. On the other hand, it will provide an economic upper hand to the already advantaged white middle class. It will illustrate the classic cliche: “the rich [although relative] get richer…” Suburban residents who qualify for affordable housing will end up in safer and possibly more economically lucrative areas than their inner city counterparts. Moreover, residential priority bars inner city families from gaining access to the better schools and public services that are associated with suburban living. Such segregation could lead to social inequality for future generations to come.

It is up to us, as housing advocates, to make sure that inclusionary zoning remains inclusionary, and that those seeking to better their situation through affordable housing have an equal opportunity to do so, regardless of where they live now. By restricting residential priority in zoning ordinances, we can make our communities more rich in diversity and abolish the notion that economic success is limited to one subset of the population.