Inclusionary housing: one effective tool for affordable housing

By Dave Breingan, Executive Director of Lawrenceville United

Arsenal 201's Phase II, which is the first project to be triggered by the inclusionary zoning ordinance in Lawrenceville. It will include 35 affordable units when finished. About half of the units are already occupied. Photo by Dave Breingan


No matter what neighborhood we live in, we all want the same thing: a safe, secure place to call home. Yet the affordable housing shortage is a crisis that’s only getting worse across the nation and here in Pittsburgh. One policy solution that has gained momentum locally in recent years is inclusionary housing.


What is inclusionary housing?

Through either incentives or mandates, inclusionary housing ensures a percentage of units in private development projects will be priced for low-income households who are the most vulnerable to displacement.


For residents of Lawrenceville, it’s a perverse fact that mass displacement has occurred at the same time the neighborhood has seen its largest housing construction boom in generations. Over 700 housing units were added to the neighborhood in just 5 years through new multi-family construction alone, almost exclusively luxury units built by private developers on private land that was previously vacant or industrial.

“Here in our ‘most livable city,’ a lack of affordable housing is reaching crisis levels,” said Monica Ruiz, Executive Director of Casa San José and co-chair of the Gainey Transition Committee on Equitable Development. “If we truly want Pittsburgh to be the most livable city for all of our residents, we need solutions like inclusionary zoning.”

Inclusionary housing policies seek to address this mismatch with the simple principle that new housing should meet the needs of all, and not just the wealthiest few. The policy has been used effectively across the country for decades. Over 700 jurisdictions have inclusionary housing policies, which have collectively produced more than 100,000 affordable units. In some areas of the country, inclusionary housing has been responsible for producing nearly half of new affordable housing. Research shows it’s effective at reducing the impacts of displacement caused by gentrification.


The housing crisis in Pittsburgh

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there’s a shortage of over 40,000 affordable units for extremely low-income families in the Pittsburgh metro area alone. The lack of safe, accessible, affordable housing is pushing low-income families, especially Black households, outside of the city, farther from access to food, transit, health care, jobs, and support systems. Census data shows Pittsburgh lost over 10,000 Black residents between 2010 and 2020, representing more than a 13% loss.


While the scale of the challenge is sobering, Pittsburgh communities are increasingly organizing alongside housing justice groups to protect against displacement and build housing opportunities for all.


What has inclusionary housing looked like in Pittsburgh? Because of the success of inclusionary housing policies nationally, the City of Pittsburgh’s own Affordable Housing Task Force in 2016 highlighted inclusionary zoning as one of four key recommendations to address the local affordable housing crisis. A grassroots advocacy campaign from the Lawrenceville community led to a pilot overlay there in 2019, which has since been adopted permanently and expanded to Bloomfield and Polish Hill.


The legislation, introduced by Councilwoman Deb Gross and unanimously approved by both Planning Commission and City Council, requires new development projects over 20 units to price 10% of the overall units for low-income families. The “inclusionary units” must be equal in all ways to the market-rate units and have access to the same amenities.


The ordinance has proven effective, as 40 quality, brand new units of affordable housing in Lawrenceville are on their way or already inhabited thanks to the ordinance, with more eligible projects expected soon. While advocates stress inclusionary housing alone won’t meet the affordable housing gap, they note it’s a proven and effective strategy that can make a real difference.


Advocates also appear to have an ally in Mayor Gainey, who ran his campaign with a prominent pledge to expand inclusionary zoning city-wide and has repeatedly stressed his commitment to affordable housing since swearing in.


But that promise appears to be a threat to the status quo for special interest groups like the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh (BAMP), which filed a federal legal challenge to the inclusionary housing ordinance on the same day Mayor Gainey’s transition team announced their vision for housing justice in Pittsburgh.


In response, a coalition of community organizations have issued a joint statement calling on BAMP to withdraw what they say is a bad faith lawsuit “prioritizing their exorbitant profits over people.” They are calling on Mayor Gainey to expand inclusionary zoning city-wide and “aggressively pursue other policies to address the affordable housing crisis in Pittsburgh.”


“Here in our ‘most livable city,’ a lack of affordable housing is reaching crisis levels,” said Monica Ruiz, Executive Director of Casa San José and co-chair of the Gainey Transition Committee on Equitable Development. “If we truly want Pittsburgh to be the most livable city for all of our residents, we need solutions like inclusionary zoning.”


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