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Rod Watson: Will ‘city of good neighbors’ only want rich people next door?

If there’s one thing we should know by now, it is this: Fairness doesn’t happen by accident.

In Buffalo, it may not even happen by design.

As community organizations push for an "inclusionary zoning" policy to make sure working class residents aren’t priced out of the city’s resurgence, there’s a fear that anything the city does adopt will be a watered-down policy that puts developers ahead of residents.

In adopting inclusionary zoning, Buffalo hardly would break new ground. A 2014 database compiled by the National Housing Conference and the National Community Land Trust found more than 500 such programs around the country.

The programs aim to ensure that some percentage of affordable housing is included whenever developers build upscale housing like much of what has been going up in and around downtown, particularly along Elmwood Avenue and Niagara and Main streets where, advocates note, rents are often beyond the means of ordinary folks.

But those also are neighborhoods on major transit lines and where jobs are located, meaning it’s vital that working class people have access to housing there.

There are a variety of ways to ensure that. While most programs are mandatory, others are voluntary. Some mandate that the affordable units be part of the market-rate project, while others allow developers to build their affordable units elsewhere. Some allow developers to simply pay into a fund for affordable housing. A 2008 analysis of inclusionary zoning programs in San Francisco, suburban Boston and Washington, D.C., concluded that "more flexible programs may lead to greater production of affordable units."

But around here, where segregation in all its forms remains an issue, "flexibility" can be code for continuing the status quo. That’s why the Buffalo Inclusionary Housing Coalition is pushing for a program that mandates that the affordable housing be part of the new development, not scattered elsewhere.

The goal is not just to build affordable housing, but "to deal with economic and racial segregation," said Sam Magavern, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, a coalition member. Including the units in the upscale development also is more efficient than building a separate project elsehwere, said John Washington of PUSH Buffalo, another coalition member.

As it and the Common Council await a Brown administration housing study that is due "shortly," the coalition also wants 30 percent of units set aside as affordable housing. That is higher than the 10 percent to 20 percent that most programs mandate be "affordable," often defined as within reach of those earning between 51 and 80 percent of an area’s median income. But PPG’s finding that Buffalo is among the most economiclly and racially segregated areas in the nation justifies the higher target here.

Coming off an impressive Democratic Primary victory that virtually guarantees him a fourth term in heavily Democratic Buffalo, Mayor Byron W. Brown should be emboldened to do the right thing.

Still, there is one finding in the research that should give proponents pause. According to the NHC analysis, "A higher percentage of Democratic voters is associated with slower adoption of inclusionary housing policies."

There is no explanation for that counter-intuitive finding. But maybe it explains why Buffalo has yet to adopt such a policy, and why there is so much concern that the one it does adopt may do little good.


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