Is inclusionary or inclusive the answer?

By Jon Chandler

A couple of words that get thrown around quite a lot in land use planning circles are “exclusionary” and “inclusionary”. While they are generally undefined, it is pretty clear from common usage that exclusion is bad and inclusion is good.

Zoning by definition is exclusionary in that it dictates what uses are allowed in which locations—the very origins of zoning are based on keeping nuisances out of residential areas—and not all exclusion will result in socially unacceptable outcomes. But certain land use practices have regrettably been used with discriminatory effects. In other words, they exclude.

By the same token, being in favor of all inclusion all the time won’t work very well, either – if everything is allowed everywhere, that would result in quite a mess in terms of urban design. It would offer the virtue of a short zoning code, but that’s about it.

The real issue underlying the use of these amorphous terms isn’t exclusion of uses per se—there really isn’t a strong lobby out there advocating for smokestacks being next to grade schools—but that uses are surrogates for people who might be excluded or disadvantaged by particular policies. The terminology of exclusion and inclusion is almost always used in the context of housing policy, and even more specifically, for the issues of housing density and housing price.

The logic essentially is that since single-family detached housing is often more expensive than attached housing, then policies that are biased in favor of single-family construction or biased against multifamily construction have the effect of making housing generally more expensive, which in turn makes it more difficult for people with lower incomes to afford housing.

That’s obviously not good. What is less obvious is what to do about it and who should be charged with undertaking whatever the solution set is deemed to be. Typically, this leads to discussions about being more “inclusive”, and on to strategies known as “inclusionary zoning” or “inclusionary housing”. Those generally refer to a system whereby the local government requires private developers to figure out how to provide lower-cost housing as a condition of being allowed to build in the first place.

This approach is politically quite attractive: it costs the local government nothing, provides a handy villain for the housing affordability narrative, and allows the local government to look as though it is doing something without requiring any actual hard actions to be taken. Inclusionary zoning requirements don’t actually do much to solve the housing problem, as numerous studies have shown, but they do address the political problem that the housing problem creates.

The key flaw of “inclusionary zoning” policies is that they miss at least two critical points: One, building occurs where and how the local codes allow, so if not enough housing of a particular type is being built or is being built in the wrong location, that’s probably a code problem, not a private sector one; and two, builders and developers don’t set housing prices, the market does.

The vocabulary of exclusion and inclusion as those terms are commonly used is handy for assigning blame, which might be important to elected officials looking for good press, but not necessarily to their citizens. If the Rent Is Too Damn High, what the citizenry wants is action to bring the cost of housing down, period.

The answer is pretty simple: for housing to be more affordable, there needs to be more of it built, which in turn will require rethinking and moving beyond current housing policies. For example, in many if not most communities, zoning and planning codes are focused on how and where housing gets built and not concerned at all with how many units might be created. Additionally, most codes tend to rigidly separate uses–one zone is single family, another zone is low-rise multifamily, another is high-rise, yet another is commercial and office, and so on—which puts a very high premium on local planners guessing right on the supply and demand equation and most of the time misses the mark on actual housing needs.

What is needed is inclusion—not in the finger-pointing sense but in a very practical one. There is no inherent reason that single-family zones can’t include duplexes and triplexes, or that commercial zones can’t allow housing or that apartments in multifamily zones have to contain a set minimum or maximum number of units. Housing could be allowed to be “included” in a variety of locations and types beyond what is generally allowed, which would help address both cost and availability.

Of course, that would change how a community looks and feels, which won’t necessarily be welcomed by the existing residents, but that’s a subject for another column.

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