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Is inclusionary zoning the answer to Cincinnati's housing crisis?

A collage of three photos: one is a row of standalone houses, one is a brick building with four housing units, and another is a small apartment building.
Mark Samaan and Nick Keeling
Examples of duplexes, quads and larger buildings that are in areas of Cincinnati now zoned for single-family structures only.

About 50,000 households in Cincinnati are spending too much on housing, many using at least half their income on rent or a mortgage. The majority are very low income families. At a recent public meeting, Council heard from experts on the best way to incentivize affordable housing. The discussion offers a sneak peek at the policies likely to be debated this year.

"We have to think about what is going to be our set of policy suites to incentivize the building of units at 50% [Area Median Income] and lower," said Council Member Reggie Harris. "That has to be a part of our larger housing strategy."

So what's on the table?

Exclusionary zoning

A few Cincinnati zoning laws are generally blamed for the lack of housing production: density limits, parking minimums, and more broadly, single-family zoning.

Mark Samaan and Nick Keeling run the Legalize Housing account on Instagram, highlighting housing throughout the city that would be illegal to build today.

(Editor's note: Samaan and Keeling were on an episode ofCincinnati Editionlast year, along with Richard Rothstein, author of the nonfiction book, The Color of Law.)

Samaan and Keeling point out nearly half of all residential land in the city is zoned only for a single-family house (about 70% of total land in the city).

"Our zoning incentivizes replacing existing housing stock with renovated or infill single family homes that sell it amounts for far higher than the average resident can afford, and that is a self-inflicted problem," Samaan said.

For multi-unit developments, at least one parking space is required per unit in most neighborhoods — and many zoning districts require two parking spaces per unit.

"I'm just reminded of the importance of public transportation, and how we have to not just build for cars, we have to build for people to be able to walk around in their communities as well," said Council Member Meeka Owens.

See the full presentation below (story continues after)

Inclusionary zoning

With inclusionary zoning, city officials grant incentives like density or parking waivers for developments that include housing units affordable to low-income families. Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney wanted to add it to the controversial density ordinance from earlier this year; ordinance author Liz Keating declined the proposed amendment and Council ultimately voted down the measure.

The Peaslee Neighborhood Center, a community group based in Over-the-Rhine, advocates for inclusionary housing policies that would include density and parking waivers, as well as mandating affordable units in exchange for city benefits like tax abatements or grants.

"The central point of equity isn't just a natural byproduct of development happening," said Joele Newman, community organizer for Peaslee. "We come from the vantage point that if equity is not intentionally designed into how we regulate with our public policy, then it's not just going to happen."

Peaslee identifies three solutions they say Council should prioritize:

  • Publicly funding the creating and preservation of non-market, affordable units (commit major, ongoing revenue to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund)
  • Incentivizing and regulating the market to create and preserve affordable units (with an inclusionary housing policy, fast-tracking affordable projects, and eliminating single-family zoning and inflated minimum lot sizes)
  • Regulating against displacement (good cause eviction policy, direct assistance for households facing displacement, rent stabilization policy)

It's not as simple as building more units at all income levels, Newman says.

A data graph showing the majority of cost-burdened and severely-cost burdened in Cincinnati are low or extremely low income.
Data: HUD
Graphic: Becca Costello, Flourish

"Many people use [workforce housing] to describe housing affordable to households who earn between 80 and 120% of AMI," said Jen Arens, community education coordinator for Peaslee. "While we can all certainly agree that folks earning in this range should be able to live in the city, the data show us that Cincinnati's market is generally already meeting their need for housing,"

Arens says it's clear the city should focus public resources on units affordable to the group that is most cost-burdened.

See Peaslee's full presentation below (story continues after)

Does inclusionary zoning work?

Is inclusionary zoning the best way to make housing more affordable? Emily Hamilton, an economist at George Mason University, says it might not be the best way to go.

"No studies have found that inclusionary zoning programs, even after factoring in density bonuses that are a component of most inclusionary zoning programs, have lowered the price of market-rate housing, or led to an increase in housing supply across the board," Hamilton said.

She says these programs can vary widely, which makes them difficult to study and use as a predictor for implementing them in other communities. They also vary widely in success rates — only 14 out of the 22 programs she studied produced any new affordable units.

But, she warns, there's a particular danger to this method: "Inclusionary zoning is not a path to unwinding exclusionary zoning," she said. "That's because underlying exclusionary zoning gives density bonuses their value."

Another fear is that developers including affordable units will simply raise the rent of other units in their building to make up for the lost income.

"I think that my general sort of response is, I worry about Cincinnati's housing market being able to absorb a policy like that," Harris said. "But I pride myself on being someone that's just not stuck in a response just because that's how I feel."

See Hamilton's full presentation below (story continues after)

What's next?

Nothing definite. The Housing Advisory Board has met once and plans to meet monthly. The 15-member panel will help define the goals of the city's housing strategy.

You can learn more about the board and sign up to receive emailed updates at choosecincy.com/housing-advisory-board

New legislation related to zoning and housing incentives is likely to come up this year.

The Equitable Growth and Housing Committee meets every other Tuesday at 1 p.m. at City Hall.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.