Like most American cities, Pittsburgh needs thousands more units of affordable housing, but federal and state money to build those homes continues to shrink.
The city of Pittsburgh wants to test out one way to fill that gap, by requiring some affordable housing to be included in residential projects. It's called inclusionary zoning, and the idea is to use private development to create a public good.
The Department of City Planning is working with community group Lawrenceville United to develop an inclusionary zoning pilot project for the neighborhood. Residents overwhelmingly support the idea, said the community group's executive director Dave Breingan.
“The main critique that we’ve heard is that it doesn’t go far enough, or that we wish we had had this sooner,” he said. “We’ve had so many projects that would have qualified under this policy come on line already, and there has been so much displacement.”
Anecdotally, increases in housing prices forced out 300 members of the Somali-Bantu community, said Breingan. And based on U.S. Census estimates since 2010, Breingan said Lawrenceville has lost many of its African American residents, older residents, and families with children. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of people using federal subsidies for housing in Lawrenceville was cut in half.
“We’ve seen a huge housing boom at the same time that we’ve seen housing prices go up,” which has led to making housing less accessible, Breingan said.
The Affordable Housing Task Force recommended Pittsburgh adopt a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy almost three years ago. In 2017, an executive order created the Inclusionary Housing and Incentive Zoning Exploratory Committee. Their report, sent to council and the mayor in November of that year, recommended that the city require all residential developments over 20 units make 10 percent of those units affordable at half of area median income.
The policy was meant to be implemented citywide.
In the meantime, Lawrenceville United has sought to test-drive the policy in the East End neighborhood, Breingan said.
“Inclusionary zoning and mandatory policies are much more pervasive now across the country. But this is still new for Pittsburgh,” he said, noting that mandatory inclusionary zoning policies are frequently a target for legal challenges. “It’s important that we get it right, not just for Lawrenceville, but for the entire city of Pittsburgh.”
There were a lot of questions to iron out for a pilot, said planning director Ray Gastil.
“How do you really craft the zoning language so it works with Pittsburgh’s code, how do you actually… establish people’s income, how are you going to get that done, how are you going to monitor that into the future?”
Gastil added that inclusionary zoning policies depend on ensuring developers can afford to rent units below market rate. One way to do that is to make all projects eligible for a break on property taxes. Work to overhaul Pittsburgh's tax abatement process remains stalled in City Council.
An inclusionary zoning pilot for Lawrenceville requires legislation, which has not yet been presented to council. Breingan said he expects that to happen soon.