Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A number of cities want to require developers and government officials to think about housing affordability on the front end of new development.
Before one brick is laid, developers, in most cases, have to examine whether the structure they want to build would damage the environment in any way. You can’t simply plop a block of condos down on a space if it would make it harder for certain native bird or plant species to live there. But what if those condos would make it harder for certain people native to that area to live there also, namely by reducing the level of existing affordable housing?
That’s the question behind new legislation popping up in cities where rental housing costs have spun out of control. Last month, New Orleans city council members introduced a bill requiring “affordable-housing impact statements” for any proposed ordinances or applications for new zoning or land use changes. The statements would force developers and government officials to first consider how new development might affect the availability of housing for low-income families.
New Orleans’ struggles with poverty and living costs are well known, especially in the post-Hurricane Katrina landscape. With a nearly 28 percent poverty level across the city, one of the highest in the nation, many residents have not been able to absorb the 50 percent rise in renting costs in the city since 2000. More than 70 percent of all households in the city spend more than a third of their income on housing. And there’s not a lot of income coming in to these households. Unless you’re in the oil business or a dentist in New Orleans, your average hourly wages are less than the average American’s in just about every industry.
Black families in the city are more burdened by housing costs than any other race. Which is why housing advocates in New Orleans are working feverishly to find ways to bring down the price of living there, and also bring wages up. The affordable-housing impact statement requirement would make developers and legislators think about these things upfront. The city released last month a 10-year strategy to create 5,000 affordable units by 2021, and using affordable-housing impact statements is one of the recommendations listed.
New Orleans isn’t the only city looking at the power of these impact statements. Atlanta passed legislation on this last November, and Austin and San Diego have similar ordinances. Pittsburgh is now considering an ordinance like this as well, and it could come in handy there: A legal complaint about a plan to build 1,200 new housing units on a lot that used to be the Pittsburgh Penguins’ hockey arena is currently under review by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to the complaint, the developers didn’t consider the needs of low-income families in the area and failed to include an adequate number of affordable units in that plan. An impact statement would have been helpful at the project’s conception.
It should be noted that there’s a federal version of these impact statements: an 1994 executive order from the Clinton administration that requires federal agencies to consider the effects on low-income families before issuing building permits. Enforcement of that has been shaky, at best. But most permitting happens at the state and local government levels anyway—where plenty of thought goes into the financial benefits of new development, and far less into what happens to the families who lose out in these deals. With the right level of enforcement, affordable-housing impact legislation would spur more robust thinking on that end, and hopefully rein in living costs in the process.