If city officials needed any more evidence that Buffalo needs an inclusionary zoning policy to ensure that low- and moderate-income renters aren’t priced out of the city’s revival, the proof comes in a new report on the "rent affordability crisis" here and in the state’s other large cities.
The analysis from the Fiscal Policy Institute, based on Census Bureau data, looks at affordability in the state’s six largest cities. It shows that 38 percent of Buffalo’s renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, with a quarter of the city’s renters spending more than 40 percent.
The federal government sets 30 percent as the upper limit for housing that’s deemed "affordable," meaning more than a third of Buffalo’s residents can’t really afford the rental housing they are living in. That means they have to scrimp on food or clothing just to pay for housing.
And the problem is even more dire for people of color, according to the report. In Buffalo, nearly half – 48 percent – of families of color are exceeding the 30 percent ceiling, with 37 percent paying more than 40 percent of their income for rent.
While Buffalo fares better than most of the other cities in the study – Albany, New York, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers – that is cold comfort to those struggling to pay rents they can’t afford.
That’s why a coalition of community organizations has been pushing so hard for the city to enact an inclusionary zoning policy that would mandate that 30 percent of the units in large new developments be set aside as affordable housing. But their proposal has been met with equally strident resistance from developers and other business leaders as well as skepticism from some city officials despite the fact that are more than 500 such programs across the country. Most of those programs mandate some effort by developers to facilitate low-income housing despite fears here and a consultant’s report claiming that a mandatory effort would stifle development.
The Fiscal Policy Institute analysis underscores the need.
"Inclusionary zoning would be a good first step," said Ron Deutsch, the institute’s executive director.
But the think tank also recommends a variety of other measures, ranging from increasing the state’s shelter allowance to more funding for rent supports to help low-income residents. Even though the state budget was approved two weeks ago, he notes that the legislative session doesn’t end for another few weeks and the governor and lawmakers could still do something to address the housing affordability issue.
"If yogurt production requires a summit," then so should housing, he said, alluding to the conclave first convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012 to focus on what was deemed a "vital" agricultural sector.
"This not just a New York City problem," Deutsch said of housing affordability. "It’s a problem all across the state."
Buffalo has a chance to address it in a meaningful way, but there is no guarantee that it will.
"The campaign continues," said Sam Magavern, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, one of the groups pushing for mandatory inclusionary zoning.
He said a voluntary policy would be "better than nothing," but other cities’ experiences show it doesn’t accomplish much.
After being so far behind the curve, Buffalo should learn from those experiences and enact a policy that will actually work.