Make Cedar Rapids zoning inclusive

DES MOINES — The City of Cedar Rapids is in the process of updating its zoning code and, after attending the 2016 HousingIowa Conference this week, I’ve got an idea.

I’d like to say that what I’m proposing is something new and radical. But it isn’t. In fact, it is a type of zoning that’s been used in Montgomery County, Maryland, since 1974.

Housing development in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Presenters at the 2016 HousingIowa Conference made a pitch for inclusionary zoning. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Housing development in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Presenters at the 2016 HousingIowa Conference made a pitch for inclusionary zoning. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa City has discussed it for more than a decade, and has managed to partially implement it.

Inclusionary zoning, also referred to as inclusionary housing this week at the conference, is term for local planning ordinances that require a given share of new construction to be affordable.

Robert Hickey, of Oregon-based Grounded Solutions Network, has studied these inclusionary practices for several years. It’s a trend, he said, that is being driven forward by mid- and large-sized cities as well as college towns.

Nationally, about 80 percent of all inclusionary zoning policies are mandatory. Those that have tried to get by with a volunteer effort have not created policies that have effectively produced affordable housing.

Most policies also apply the full jurisdiction, and aren’t limited to any specific city districts. This is important, because the goal is not only to increase a community’s stock of affordable housing, but to distribute it more evenly throughout the city. And while many people only think about affordable housing in terms of rental units, potential homeowners are also looking for affordable options.

Developers need to be required to keep a certain percentage of their project affordable. Most communities with the ordinance have kept that percentage relatively low, between 10 and 20 percent.

“Affordable” needs to be defined too. A common practice is to use 60 percent of median household income or below.

What makes an effective inclusionary zoning or housing policy? Hickey has a checklist:

• Make it mandatory, not a volunteer effort

• Apply it where new development is occurring or expected to occur

• Make it purposefully simple and predictable

• Include long terms for time the properties must remain affordable

• Plan for ongoing monitoring and stewardship needs of the program

• Offer housing developers incentives and flexibility

That last item is where I see Cedar Rapids being effective.

We’ll want to keep the threshold for triggering the ordinance within reason. For instance, we could say that it only applies to developments of 15 units or more. And, once triggered, developers need to have a tool chest of options available so that they can most easily and effectively comply. In addition to setting aside on-site units as affordable, for instance, they could be allowed to produce an equivalent at another site, or pay a fee, or dedicate land to the larger goal.

As for incentives, the city could offer density, height or bulk bonuses. There could be financial subsidies, cost offsets or any number of zoning variances.

The worst thing Cedar Rapids could do is nothing at all. No community can afford the cost of economic segregation, and Cedar Rapids has a prime opportunity to set things right.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on September 10, 2016. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette