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Development & Transportation

What will it take to expand inclusionary zoning across Pittsburgh?

construction_housing_house_build.jpg
Gene J. Puskar
/
AP

A tool to create more affordable housing is now active in three neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s East End, and calls to implement inclusionary zoning city-wide are growing more urgent. But while Mayor Ed Gainey supports the initiative, it’s unclear how exactly the expansion will come about.

Mandatory inclusionary zoning, or IZ, requires anyone developing at least 20 units of housing to make some of the units available to lower-income residents. IZ’s introduction in Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Polish Hill followed from the extraordinary housing pressures they’ve seen in recent years.
Other parts of town, however, aren’t experiencing the same overheated markets. Christina Howell, executive director of the Bloomfield Development Corporation, said that was clear in city councilors’ responses to the policy’s recent expansion to her neighborhood.

Council unanimously supported expanding IZ into her community, she said. Yet “there was definitely a differentiation between ‘Yes, we’re going to support this because you all clearly want it,’ and ‘We’re not ready to say that that’s what’s right for our neighborhood.’”

The problem is that by the time a neighborhood needs IZ, it’s often already too late to rein in spiraling housing prices, said Dave Breingan, who leads Lawrenceville United. He says the city should act before communities arrive at that point, rather than play catch-up.

“Other neighborhoods that might not be experiencing the pinch right now, they would be well-served to learn a lesson from Lawrenceville,” he said. “Just take note of how fast the market can turn.”

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Under the city’s IZ legislation, apartment prices are set to be affordable for people who make 50 percent or less of area median income, and home prices are limited to 80 percent or less of area median income. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development annually releases calculations for those levels, which are also dependent on how many people are in a household. For example, for a single person earning $29,700 in 2021, a studio apartment would cost about $750 per month.
IZ was made permanent in Lawrenceville last summer after a two-year pilot. The initiative took shape after several years of city study and community outreach. By that time, Breingan and others say, a lot of development that would have been subject to the affordable housing requirement had already been built. The result in Lawrenceville, Breingan said, was significant displacement and demographic change.

“We have lost half of our Black population in three years, we’ve lost huge swathes of our low-income population,” he said. “We know that evictions are disproportionately impacting our single parents, mostly single moms with school-age children.”

And that’s just as Lawrenceville becomes the kind of place that can help make life easier — one with great transit connections, low crime, and improving schools, he said.

Breingan also noted that a city exploratory committee tasked with studying IZ found that all Pittsburgh neighborhoods could support a requirement of 10 percent affordable housing without harming the development market. Hotter markets could bear 15 percent.

City Councilor Deb Gross introduced the IZ legislation, as well as sponsored its expansion into Bloomfield and Polish Hill, which Gainey signed into law last week.

For a long time, Gross said, Pittsburgh’s central problem was getting people to want to live here. The primary threat to the city’s homes was the fact that people were “moving away and abandoning them.” Consequently, “all of our policy solutions are, in a way, pro-investment.”

But Gross said that mindset is increasingly out of step with an environment in which Pittsburgh’s naturally-occurring affordable housing is besieged by a number of factors. Among them are large institutional buyers assembling portfolios of land, as well as individual developers renovating single-family homes and subsequently raising rents to levels people with moderate incomes can’t afford.

“Inclusionary zoning is not going to do anything for that,” Gross said. “But it can add affordable units that we’re losing by other means. So it’s our responsibility to also do that wherever it’s appropriate.”

However, she added that the city must continue to have robust public discussion about expanding the use of the zoning rule.

“It was the direction of the prior administration to have inclusionary zoning be more of a neighborhood-by-neighborhood implementation,” said Andrew Dash, deputy director for the Department of City Planning. So individual communities are having discussions about whether IZ is right for them — even as others, such as Oakland, are writing them into their neighborhood plans.

But it’s possible that discussions about how to expand IZ citywide could begin later this year, as the mayor’s transition team makes its report, and City Planning releases an update to Pittsburgh’s Housing Needs Assessment, Dash said.

“The intention is … we really take those things and get a better understanding of how the program can expand,” he said.