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Inclusionary zoning, a policy that requires developers to build a certain amount of affordable units, is gaining momentum in Pittsburgh. A pilot program in Lawrenceville has been made permanent by City Council, and state Rep. Ed Gainey, who will likely be Pittsburgh’s next mayor, says he supports expanding the policy throughout the city.

As housing costs keep rising and construction continues even during the pandemic, advocates say the policy is vital to preventing mass displacement of lower-income people, especially the city’s Black residents, while some developers and residents worry about its effect on the local economy.

A pilot program that began in Lawrenceville in 2019 gave Pittsburgh its first look at inclusionary zoning after the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force recommended the policy. The Lawrenceville policy required all new developments with 20 units or more to set aside at least 10% of units for lower-income residents at affordable rates.

City Council voted 9-0 to make the Lawrenceville pilot program permanent on June 15. Council heard not only overwhelming support for the policy at a June 2 hearing, but many speakers also called for the policy to be expanded beyond Lawrenceville and with a higher percentage of affordable units.

On top of that, key people throughout Pittsburgh support expanding inclusionary zoning — Urban Redevelopment Authority officials, City Planning Commission members, City Councilors, community leaders and, most notably, Gainey.

State Rep. Ed Gainey speaks to reporters at the Hamilton House in Homewood on May 21, three days after he won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Pittsburgh. Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource.

“I want to make sure that every housing project that comes before the city, affordability is already embedded into it,” Gainey said in an interview with PublicSource three days after he defeated incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto in the May 18 Democratic primary.

Peduto has said he does not support citywide inclusionary zoning, but does support it in neighborhoods under certain conditions.

A blanket inclusionary zoning policy could be challenging for a city with 90 distinct neighborhoods with different market conditions and needs.

“Inclusionary zoning may make sense in some neighborhoods, and maybe not in other neighborhoods,” said Diamonte Walker, the deputy executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. “It’s not a silver bullet. I do think that it is an arrow within the quiver that we need to take another look at, and we need to figure out how to right-size it and right-structure it, and create the right structure for Pittsburgh.”

Success in Lawrenceville

The Lawrenceville program required new developments with 20 or more units to reserve 10% of units for households that meet income requirements for below-market-rate housing.

The results are compelling: Including units under construction, the program has created 40 affordable units in the neighborhood, even while a pandemic constrained the local economy during much of the two years since the program began.

“I think we’ve proven the feasibility of the model,” said Dave Breingan, the executive director of Lawrenceville United. “It’s not going to cure all of our housing challenges. But together with other policies, it can make a real difference.”

Councilwoman Deb Gross, who represents Lawrenceville and championed the idea two years ago, said the community was “very clear in wanting affordable units” in the neighborhood in the long process of public comment leading up to the pilot program.

“And they were built,” Gross said. “So the sky didn’t fall. Some people worried that it would stop development. It actually did not stop development. And the neighborhood is seeing new units coming online very soon.”

The City Planning Commission recommended that the Lawrenceville policy be made permanent in April. Sabina Deitrick, an associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the commission, said in an interview that Pittsburgh has “been really slow” to adopt inclusionary zoning and that she’d like to see it across the city.

Not one-size-fits-all

Lawrenceville’s ordinance was tailored specifically to that neighborhood after a long process of public consultation. Before inclusionary zoning can be enacted in other neighborhoods, Gross said “nothing would happen without having the opportunity for neighbors in each of those neighborhoods to participate in the conversation.”

Richard Swartz, the executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, said he would want a threshold higher than 10% affordable units in his neighborhood. Whenever a developer tries to use public land for a project, he said his group tries to impose a 33% affordable unit threshold. If the developer is proposing fewer affordable units, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation will oppose the land sale.