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State Sen. Danny Martiny

With a finger checking the rhetorical wind and a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the City of New Orleans’ chief lobbyist introduced himself to a state Senate committee last week as Don Quixote.

Rodney Braxton said later he was fighting the windmills of senators wanting to assert state authority over a local zoning issue that the newly elected mayor and New Orleans City Council seem poised to pursue.

State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, answered that he was all for local zoning but drew the line at telling property owners what they could do with their holdings.

Martiny’s Senate Bill 462 is the Louisiana version of a fight being waged around the country — pitting state Republican lawmakers, who favor tax breaks and other financial incentives for homebuilders, against Democratic local officials, who argue that even if cities can afford it, the giveaways haven’t worked.

On Thursday, for instance, the overwhelmingly Republican Tennessee General Assembly put a bill on GOP Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk that would do pretty much the same thing in that state that SB462 would do in Louisiana. Nashville, like New Orleans and many other cities, is looking for a way to ensure working people aren’t priced out of the housing market when developers move in to gentrify a neighborhood.

SB462 would replace the term “inclusionary zoning” with “voluntary economic incentive policies,” which would circumvent a Louisiana city’s go-to move to create more affordable housing. The measure cleared Martiny’s Senate Commerce committee without objection. (A similar bill passed the Senate last year but was defeated by a House committee.)

“Inclusionary zoning” requires developers and homebuilders to set aside a certain percentage of units in apartment, condo, and single-family home projects to sell at below market rates in return for allowing the construction of more units at market value.

Jon W. Luther, chief executive officer for Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans, said developers and homebuilders already have to clear numerous hurdles from a confusing array of regulations to neighborhood resistance to the problems of acquiring and paying for building materials. Requiring additional units that will generate less revenue adds pressures that could send homebuilders to other cities, or other states, he added.

Research shows that inclusionary zoning does create affordable units without driving up market prices. But the numbers are often modest. In New York City, which has a long history of requiring developers give back to the community in return for being allowed to build, the issue is not the policy’s legitimacy but whether it’s creating enough units for lower-income families.

In Louisiana, the only municipality making moves toward inclusionary zoning is New Orleans, though Baton Rouge’s Mayor Sharon Broome opposed Martiny’s bill as did the Louisiana Police Jury Association of Louisiana.

In order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment in New Orleans, renters need to earn $18.54 per hour, but the average wage for the city’s renters is $3 per hour less, according to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

The city Planning Commission recommended a “Smart Housing Mix” policy that seeks to expand affordable housing in developing neighborhoods like Treme and Mid-City. The policy likely will come up for a vote in the City Council when the new crop of city leaders take the oath of office in May.

As a candidate, Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell has said she would support the Smart Housing Mix policy to ensure that a percentage of new units coming available are affordable to the average worker. “There is no magic formula to addressing the housing crisis. I want to use all of the tools in the toolbox, including smart housing mix to meet our affordable housing crisis,” she wrote in answer to Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance survey.

Cantrell also advocated a three-tiered approach that includes a property tax incentive to encourage landlords to lock in affordable rent; a first-time homeowner tax abatement for low- and moderate-income families; and a program to help developers use state and federal financial incentives.

A number of incoming council members have spoken supportively of the policy, including Helena Moreno, Kristin Gisleson Palmer, Jay H. Banks, Jason Williams and Jared Brossett.

Maxwell Ciardullo, policy and communications director for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, said about 800 governmental agencies across the country have embraced the concept — and New Orleans voters did too in making their selections last November.

“We're disappointed that legislators and real estate developer lobbyists from outside the city are again trying to strip our ability to solve our own problems,” Ciardullo said.

Martiny’s SB462 is scheduled for a vote by the full Senate on Monday.

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