How Portland’s Inclusionary Zoning Policy Makes Development Less Affordable

By Lydia White

The City of Portland’s inclusionary zoning* requirements have turned a once-gushing housing development market into sludge. This was predicted by nearly everyone outside the central planning bureaucratic bubble.

In a rush to beat a February 1st deadline, developers submitted permits for 7,000 units in less than two months. Since then, that number has dropped by 1033%. Combined with other onerous mandates, inclusionary zoning has pushed developers to build in Portland’s surrounding suburbs. Developers aren’t doing so out of greed; they cannot feasibly finance projects within city limits.

Incentives provided by the city aren’t enough to supplement the costs of inclusionary zoning units. Portland-based Urban Development + Partners estimates that an “affordable rate” building costs over $300,000 more than its value, which is the primary number banks and investors use to determine a project’s viability. Eric Cress, a principal with Urban Development + Partners, says, “You can’t finance that [inclusionary zoning projects]. The financing world does not accept anything that costs more than its value.”

The unfortunate, yet not unforeseen, consequence of inclusionary zoning is that some low-income households benefit, while the policy serves as an informal gentrification program suffered by other residents. If Portland’s city planners want to help people afford housing, they should repeal inclusionary zoning requirements and let developers increase housing supply in a free and open housing market.

*Portland’s inclusionary zoning policy requires developers with 20 units or more to make 20% of units “affordable” at 80% of median family income, or 10% “affordable” at 60% median family income.

Lydia White is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Zoning Oregonians out of House and Home

In a four-part feature this week, The Oregonian writes about the failure of government policy to provide “affordable housing” in the Portland metro region. Extensive public subsidies for low-income housing have failed to ameliorate the problem, and legislative efforts to force homebuilders to provide lower-priced housing (at a loss) have been unsuccessful.

What the story largely ignores, however, is that Oregon’s land-use regulatory system makes it illegal to build any kind of housing on most private land in Oregon. In addition, the small amount of land available for housing is subject to extensive planning and zoning requirements. This was explained 10 years ago by consulting economist Randall Pozdena in an econometric study entitled, “The New Segregation.” His analysis found that Portland-style “smart-growth” policies across the country were making it increasingly difficult for low-income and minority households to become homeowners.

Other housing experts, such as Harvard’s Edward L. Glaeser, reached similar conclusions.

Housing was not always so expensive. In the decades immediately following World War II, when there was enormous demand for more homes, the private sector was able to respond because large tracts of surplus farmland were converted to residential housing. Such conversions are illegal in Oregon today.

The Oregonian is correct in saying that government housing policy has failed, but forcing private builders to sell homes at a loss will only make things worse. The real solution is to get government zoning out of the way so housing markets can begin to work again.