After 30 years of calling for affordable housing in its Comprehensive Plan, the town of Yarmouth is finally poised to take action. Yarmouth’s Affordable Housing Committee has recommended passage of an inclusionary zoning ordinance that would require new residential developments to include affordable units. Inclusionary zoning (or inclusionary housing as it is often called) is only one part of a comprehensive strategy to create housing for moderate- and lower-income families. Inclusionary zoning can help to mitigate the effect of years of exclusionary zoning and market pressures that have pushed the median price of a home in Yarmouth to over $600,000 – out of reach for most of the town’s workforce.

Yarmouth’s Affordable Housing Committee is holding a listening session about inclusionary zoning on Jan. 24 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Log Cabin. Andrii Yalanskyi/

The proposed Yarmouth inclusionary zoning ordinance requires developers of new or extensively rehabbed housing to allocate 10% of units as affordable to people who earn 60%-120% of the area median income, so $55,000-$110,000. Rental developments of 10 or more units and ownership developments of five or more units would be subject to the new ordinance. Here, “affordable” is a technical term meaning monthly housing costs may not exceed 30% of the owners’ or renters’ gross monthly income. Developers are able to offset the costs of this set aside through a combination of incentives such as density bonuses, reduced parking requirements and relaxed height and lot size restrictions. The town could also consider offering an expedited permitting process or reduced fees. As an alternative, a developer could pay a fee in lieu of $150,000 per affordable unit required but not built. That fee would then be added to a designated fund to support additional efforts to create affordable housing.

There are many advantages to inclusionary zoning. It is predictable – developers will know ahead of time what is expected of them and can figure costs accordingly. It is flexible – allowing extra incentives depending on location and the number of units being set aside. It results in affordable housing being built throughout the town. It won’t cause clusters of lower-cost housing. Instead, affordable housing is dispersed wherever development occurs. Additionally, affordable units built through inclusionary zoning are required to be indistinguishable from other units in the same development. This economic integration has been shown to equalize opportunity for all residents.

Some people may say that inclusionary zoning doesn’t produce enough affordable housing to solve the problem. Yet, as of 2016, more than 1,300 inclusionary zoning policies throughout the U.S. had generated more than 170,000 affordable housing units. Additionally, inclusionary zoning is only one part of a broad affordable housing strategy that the Yarmouth Affordable Housing Committee is considering, including tax incentives and credits, zoning changes, subsidies, land banks and more. In Maine, L.D. 2003 is soon to take effect throughout the state, and will allow for increased density wherever residential development is permitted. But history has shown us that without a mandate requiring some percentage of that development to be affordable, it won’t happen. In Yarmouth, there have been several homeownership developments that promised affordable housing, but abandoned that promise when “the numbers didn’t work.”

It is also claimed that inclusionary zoning depresses development and increases housing costs. There is no evidence that this is true. In fact, academic studies of many inclusionary zoning programs nationwide have concluded that Inclusionary zoning laws do not slow development and have minimal, if any, impact on housing prices. Locally, the city of Portland had success with inclusionary zoning until the percentage of affordable units required was raised from 10% to 25%. And in spite of that increase, the Press Herald recently reported that local developers plan to build 800 residential units within the city, 25% of which would be affordable. In a market as strong as the Portland area, there is no doubt that inclusionary zoning can work. In any case, a town can’t time its policies to the market. Inclusionary zoning is a valuable policy to have on the books, ready to be applied.

The time to take action on the affordable housing crisis is now. Yarmouth’s Affordable Housing Committee is holding a listening session about inclusionary zoning on Jan. 24 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Log Cabin. In March, the Yarmouth Planning Board will consider whether to recommend the proposed inclusionary zoning ordinance to the Yarmouth Town Council. I urge them to do so. Inclusionary zoning is a logical and effective first step to take. Yarmouth can’t afford to wait any longer.

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