The New Orleans City Council is taking another stab at solving what has become an acute problem for many New Orleanians: finding a home or apartment they can afford.
The council on Thursday directed the City Planning Commission to consider three potential changes to the city’s zoning code, all aimed at encouraging developers of new housing to set aside units for low-income residents.
As the commission does its work, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration will study what incentives the developers should get in return, and in which neighborhoods the units are most needed.
The council will then hash out a final set of rules.
“It’s been made very clear that if the incentives aren’t right, all that this will do is just bring development to a complete halt,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said.
The "inclusionary zoning" effort began in 2016, when the previous council directed the City Planning Commission to study housing set-asides for residents who were priced out of many New Orleans neighborhoods.
The commission recommended that the council require developers to reserve 12 percent of units in new or renovated housing developments with 10 or more apartments. Those units would have been kept affordable for low-income residents for between 50 to 99 years.
But facing strong opposition from many developers and questions about what incentives were appropriate, the council never acted on those recommendations.
Critics, meanwhile, convinced the state Legislature in the spring to ban municipalities from passing such rules. Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed the law but warned that he wouldn’t oppose a future legislative ban if cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge did not move swiftly to actually pass such rules.
That has brought a new urgency to the issue in New Orleans.
The City Planning Commission will consider three options. One would mandate that developers reserve units in developments being built in areas of the city where low- and moderate-income residents are struggling to afford housing, but only in cases where the proposed housing would exceed normal density limits and therefore require city approval.
Another option would require developers to reserve affordable units in all relatively expensive neighborhoods regardless of the density of the project. That is the plan favored by most affordable housing advocates.
A third idea would have the council give developers who agree to reserve cheaper units some leeway on zoning regulations that would otherwise apply to them.
The planning commission will also examine whether the new rules should apply to small, mid-size and/or large housing developments, a change from the council’s earlier request to have planners apply the new rules to all buildings with 10 or more units.
At the same time, City Hall will commission a study into just what incentives the developers should get in exchange for their commitments. It’s not clear who will do that study or how much it will cost.
That research is separate from a broader study of incentives commissioned by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and released in May, Cantrell spokeswoman LaTonya Norton said.
The research will also examine which city neighborhoods are most in need of affordable housing. That is separate from research the city commissions every three years into market values and the affordability of certain neighborhoods.
Finally, the new study will examine just how many units should be reserved in each development.
“We all know that we have an affordability crisis in the city,” Cantrell's chief of staff, John Pourciau, said Thursday. “This provides another tool in the tool kit to be able to address that crisis.”
The commission has 50 days to hold a public hearing on the issue. It will then send its recommendations to the council.
While Thursday's action drew the usual reactions from those who say the housing set-asides will either reduce or exacerbate the city’s affordable housing shortage, at least one resident chided city officials for taking so long to pass a policy.
“We have paid for study after study after study,” said Rosalind Peychaud, a former planning commissioner and executive director of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation. “Why can’t you just look at something on the shelf to determine what you have missed?”
The latest research will rely at least in part on the older studies, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer responded.
“I hate studies as much as you do,” she said. But if the rules for the new incentives are deficient, "we are not going to be producing more houses, no matter what our policy is."