New Orleans City Council members took a first step Tuesday toward reviving long-stalled plans to boost the availability of affordable housing in the city.
The council's Community Development Committee voted to forward a measure to the full council asking the City Planning Commission to study so-called "inclusionary zoning," or rules requiring developers to reserve some housing units in new developments for low-income residents.
At issue is whether developers would be required to include affordable units whenever building in certain areas of the city, or only in cases when they request permission to deviate from other zoning restrictions.
The Planning Commission released a similar study last February, but the council shelved it amid protests from developers and questions about what incentives to give firms.
This time around, the clock is ticking, officials pointed out Tuesday. The state Legislature — at the urging of developers — passed a ban on inclusionary zoning rules this spring, a measure Gov. John Bel Edwards ultimately vetoed.
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But the governor has said he will let a future ban become law if New Orleans and other municipalities don't get around to passing local rules.
"We need to show the governor and the Legislature and the citizens that we are very serious about this," said Councilman Jay H. Banks, who heads the council's development committee.
"We can tweak the details as we move forward, but ... we do have a bell that’s about to ring."
Also Tuesday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration pledged to commission a study into what specific incentives developers should be offered in return for including affordable units and which neighborhoods the mandates should apply to.
The measure asking for a recommendation from the Planning Commission is on the full council’s agenda this Thursday. If it passes, the commission will have 50 days to hold a public hearing on the issue.
It would then submit a recommendation to the council, which would have two months to pass a motion considering that suggestion, and another three months to change city laws with the recommendation in mind.
Specifically, the council wants planners to research three options.
The council could, in neighborhoods where low-income residents are struggling to afford housing, require that developers set aside some affordable units, but only in cases where the proposed housing would exceed density rules.
Or the council could demand that developers reserve affordable units in pricey areas regardless of their density, a proposal favored by affordable housing advocates.
Finally, the council could give developers who agree to reserve cheaper units some leeway on the city zoning regulations that would otherwise apply to them.
Unclear for now is exactly what carrot, other than higher density, developers would receive for playing ball, and what neighborhoods would be affected by the new rules.
Those questions will be explored in the study the city will conduct, said John Pourciau, Cantrell’s chief of staff.
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Also unclear is how many units would be reserved. City planners last time around suggested that 12 percent of housing in developments with 10 or more units be kept affordable for a period of 50 to 99 years. Those guidelines might be revived or else replaced by new ones.
Advocates generally praised the council's move Tuesday as the first step toward a solution to the city’s affordable housing crisis, which has cropped up in recent years as home values have skyrocketed but wages in many industries have remained stagnant.
“These ideas are now becoming the baseline housing policy for large progressive cities,” said Maxwell Ciardullo, of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “When we talk to advocates and even city managers across the country, they are confused that we don’t have this yet.”
The Homebuilders Association of Greater New Orleans — one of the most vocal opponents of the earlier attempt to mandate the affordable set-asides — took issue with the option most favored by Ciardullo and other advocates. But its CEO did not dispute that something should be done about the city’s housing challenges.
“A lot of what has been testified here today, we agree with,” CEO Jon Luther said. “We know that there are challenges here in New Orleans with housing affordability. And my members … it would be shortsighted of them not to address all price points.”