Inclusionary housing policies are often adopted to achieve two goals: (1) to increase the availability of affordable homes in a community, and (2) to ensure that the affordable units are integrated with market-rate units in new, mixed-income developments.
To facilitate the second goal, inclusionary housing policies typically require developers to achieve comparable outward appearance across units, making it difficult for passers-by to differentiate between affordable and market-rate homes.
In addition to requirements regarding external appearance, many communities call for new affordable homes to be comparable or identical to market-rate homes in other respects, including but not limited to:
- Unit size (square feet)
- Number of bedrooms provided
- Tenure – i.e., whether units are for sale or rentals
- Amenities provided (balconies, garages, etc.)
Recognizing that it may not make sense to require units to be identical in every respect, most inclusionary housing policies allow for some flexibility in implementation. For example, many communities do not require affordable homes to be the same size as their market-rate neighbors; rather, the ordinance simply specifies a minimum square footage. These provisions help to ensure that affordable units meet standards similar to the market-rate homes, while providing some allowances to help accommodate developers’ bottom line.
Enforcement of comparability requirements can prove difficult, particularly if standards for affordable units have not been well defined. Cities use several strategies to address this challenge.
An inclusionary zoning administrator in Boulder, Colorado, reports that the city “adopted ‘livability standards’ livability standards that state that the affordable units must be functionally equivalent to the market-rate units and that specify minimum storage, room sizes, window openings, and warranties on flooring, furnaces and appliances.” She adds that the city “developed a checklist for these items that the developer must fill out and sign that states that any deficiencies can result in a reduction of the maximum allowable sales price for the unit.”
Several jurisdictions have found, particularly with homeownership units, that the market may be the best form of enforcement; developers who provide inferior affordable homes may have difficulty finding anyone willing to live in them. As an administrator in Somerville, Massachusetts, notes, “the short-term solution may result in long-term problems,” including being saddled with the holding costs of “owning a unit that no one wants to buy.” This approach may not work in high demand locations where desperate buyers may be more willing to accept substandard units.
Some communities have found it valuable to work with developers on a case-by-case basis to find custom solutions to comparability requirements. An inclusionary zoning administrator in Livermore, California gives the following example:
“Since affordable units need to be comparable from the outside, the city suggested that the developer apply for a density bonus that would create additional parcels. The new parcels could be used to take one large affordable unit and break it into two affordable units in a couplet style. The two units would be placed on corner lots that allow for each driveway to face a different street. The massing of the two units from the street would be comparable to the massing of [single] market-rate units. Instead of one 3,000-square-foot BMR, the developer could build a couplet and thus provide two, 1,500-square-foot BMRs. The incentive to the developer to do this is two-fold: 1) the developer is able to sell two BMRs (instead of one); and 2) the developer also got additional market-rate parcels through the density bonus program.”
This kind of negotiated arrangement may not make sense everywhere. It requires more staff time and a clear process for approvals.