Here’s a cold, hard truth: The mandatory inclusionary zoning provision that the City Council passed this week as part of a subarea plan for the Tacoma Mall neighborhood is unlikely to produce a single unit of affordable housing there — at least anytime soon.
The neighborhood is already built out and recently developed, meaning real results from the new zoning policy likely will take decades, not years.
But that's OK. Including it at the mall is only the first step toward the policy going citywide, which is what needs to happen.
That’s not my read on the situation, although I agree with it.
It comes from Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority, and City Councilman Ryan Mello, who helped champion the policy. Both support the inclusionary zoning vigorously, for good reason.
In layman’s terms, mandatory inclusionary zoning requires developers building multifamily projects of a certain size — in the case of the Tacoma Mall area, 15 units or more — to make a certain percentage of those units affordable. In the Tacoma Mall area, the new requirements mandate 10 percent of the units be affordable to renters making 50 percent of the area median income, or roughly $26,000 a year.
“Affordable,” in this case, is defined as making sure a tenant is not paying more than 30-percent of their income toward rent.
Mirra is a man who knows a thing or two about producing affordable housing. He’s also keenly aware of the city’s affordable housing deficit and the need to act quickly in response.
“This was in important step forward, and an important civic discussion about a problem that’s getting worse and needs the attention of the City Council,” Mirra said “This is a very valuable tool" and one “that needs to apply to the other parts of the city as well.”
There are numerous considerations to keep in mind here.
For starters, market circumstances throughout the city are far different than they are near the mall.
Just think what mandatory inclusionary zoning could help build in the city’s mixed-use centers. How many affordable units might the city create in North Proctor or along Mildred and Sixth Avenue or along South Tacoma Way and Portland Avenue?
All of these areas are far riper for new development than the Tacoma Mall area, and as the city's population continues to be pushed upward, the pressure for dense, multi-family developments will increase.
One of the keys to making sure such a policy works is enacting it before a market reaches its peak, in part because projects permitted prior to passing such legislation would be grandfathered in to the old way of doing business.
In some respects, that means Tacoma has already missed out on important opportunities to generate affordable housing, as Mello readily admits.
Now, think about what mandatory inclusionary zoning could have accomplished in Stadium or Point Ruston if such a policy was already in place.
That's why it makes sense to impose it citywide as fast as possible.
“It’s like trees,” Mirra said. “The best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. The next best time to plant a tree is right now … so we’re ready for the next opportunity.”
That might prove politically difficult, but the bigger challenge will be getting it right.
That’s because when a city attempts to use policy to harness the power of the private market to create affordable housing, it must adhere to state law requiring developers to be adequately compensated, through incentives, for their potential profit losses. It also has to provide enough incentives to prompt developers to act.
That’s the catch in all this.
Kurt Wilson is a Puyallup-based builder and developer and also a board member with the Master Builders Association. Wilson said developers would be far more likely to cooperate with an incentive-based program that wasn’t mandatory.
Offering incentives like additional height, floor area, developer-friendly zoning adjustments, tax breaks and easier permitting in voluntary exchange for affordable housing would ultimately be more effective, Wilson said.
“It’s always going to get more from the development community when you have an incentive-based approach rather than regulation with a stick,” Wilson said.
It’s a nice idea. History, however, suggests it might be a bit optimistic or, at least, an inadequate response to the crisis. Tacoma has had incentives for affordable housing on the books for some time — most notably, the 12-year property tax abatement program. While the program has gained steamed recently, historically it's been little used.
So, then, the trick would seem to be marrying the two. That means requiring developers to include affordable units in their multi-family developments but crafting a policy that offers enough incentives to convince them it's worth it.
Is it possible?
It better be. Because mandatory inclusionary zoning is far and away the most potent tool the city has at its disposal to create affordable housing.
And clearly, for Tacoma, time is running out.