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To the dismay of many private developers, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday directed the City Planning Commission to come up with rules for a range of new policies aimed at increasing the number of affordable housing units in the city, including requiring developers to add lower-cost units to residential projects in certain city neighborhoods.

The commission is expected to send those rules to the council for a final vote within a month.

"There's no one who would not agree with me that we are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis that is pushing many of our long-term residents to the margins," said Councilman Jason Williams, one of two council sponsors of the measure, which was requested by Mayor LaToya Cantrell. "This is an important first step."

Last year, the council asked the Planning Commission to consider three options. One would require developers to add affordable units to new projects in certain neighborhoods. Another would apply the mandate only to developers who request zoning changes for their projects, and a third would offer developers incentives for building affordable housing but would not require them to do so.

After hearing from both sides, the commission recommended that the council drop the first, broad mandate in favor of the other two choices.

But the council on Thursday decided it wanted to continue exploring all three options.

A national consulting firm, HR&A Advisors, is expected by next month to complete a study on the range of policy options, including which neighborhoods have the biggest need and incentives that developers could receive in exchange for their investment.

Dropping any of the options before a study on their feasibility is complete would have been “denying ourselves the ability to have all of the information on the table,” Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen said.

City Council members noted that Thursday's vote gave them a track record of having made progress on the issue ahead of a deadline imposed last year by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Edwards was an ally last year in cities' efforts to craft such housing rules, often dubbed "inclusionary zoning." But the governor has said he will not stop any legislative push this year to bar the practice if cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge have done nothing to implement it.

His challenge was issued after the local council for more than two years had looked at but not implemented such a policy change, amid protests by developers and disagreement over which incentives to tie to the restrictions.

The council's unanimous vote was praised by most of the two dozen residents who showed up at the council chamber.

“If affordable housing in New Orleans is made voluntary, then no developer will do it,” said the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger on behalf of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. “If affordable housing is made temporary, then when incentives expire, low-income residents and the elderly will be evicted — as we have already seen in the city.”

But the proposed policies received a cold reception from a handful of critics who said they would cause homebuilders to invest elsewhere.

“If you put restrictions on the development community … the impact that you will have is the (affordable) units will not get built,” said Mark Madderra, representing the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans.

Williams and others on the council noted that Thursday's action is only one way officials intend to show their commitment to fixing the city’s housing problems.

Increasing contributions to the city’s Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund and putting pressure on the Housing Authority of New Orleans to redevelop vacant land it controls more quickly are among the other strategies the council is considering, Councilwoman Helena Moreno said.

“This is just a piece of a puzzle,” she said. “We can’t sit here and say that inclusionary zoning is going to solve all of our problems. But at the same time, I do believe we can make it happen.” 


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.