Should the City Council consider using ‘inclusionary zoning’ to increase affordable housing?


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While the Iowa City City Council voted on Monday to put off discussion on an inclusionary-zoning ordinance, future debate on the issue is sure to be contentious. Inclusionary zoning can take various forms, but the general idea is to goad developers into building houses for low- and moderate-income households in higher-priced areas. The goal is to increase affordable housing and economically diversify neighborhoods. Some offer incentives to developers, while others are compulsory.

When examining this issue, it’s important to reject market idolatry and intransigent free-market dogma. As a rule, citizens should question the (false) notion that markets are inherently moral or benevolent. Markets are simply a means to an end; if there are shortcomings in a given market, steps should be taken to remedy those failures.

And that, according to a UI housing expert, is exactly what Iowa City’s housing market is doing: failing.

“The market has not supplied housing for low-income populations and working populations,” Jerry Anthony, a UI associate professor of urban and region planning, told me.

While “people who benefit from the status quo perceive a threat,” he said, such a perception is “not based in fact or reality.” While some studies have found detrimental effects associated with inclusionary zoning — including an increase in the price of expensive houses — Anthony questioned whether there would be any negative consequences in Iowa City. Because of the variability of inclusionary-zoning ordinances, it’s difficult to determine if these findings are applicable to Iowa City, Anthony argued.

He also said that while a voluntary program would be more politically salable, it would also be ineffective. Not enough developers would opt in, he contended.

Above all, future debate should center on empirical fact rather than a vicseral obedience to markets. Markets aren’t some abstract, sacrosanct entity that we should impetuously bow down and acquiesce to. Their efficacy determines their worth.

The housing market is failing for many low- and moderate-income owners. If compulsory inclusionary zoning would solve some of these problems, the City Council should certainly consider implementing it.

— by Shawn Gude


The Iowa City City Council’s decision to postpone discussion of the inclusionary-zoning ordinance was the correct decision at the present time and a prudent move for two reasons. One, we do not have all the input and information needed to make the right decision. And second, this ordinance is a good idea but spearheaded by bad philosophy.

Affordable housing and mixed-income areas are a necessity to any town as diverse as Iowa City. Diverse neighborhoods create a sense of community and togetherness. However, to make it compulsory — in which developers are forced to designate a share of new residential construction for affordable housing — is absurd. By forcing this ordinance on developers, we restrict how they do business and thereby subvert capitalism.

City ordinances often intend to support or produce a positive result, but they end up transforming into an entirely different instrument — and one that cannot be supported. The PAULA-ratio policy was a well-intended mechanism to change the city’s public image, but the legality of the rules are now in question.

Proponents of the inclusionary ordinance have good intentions. I don’t doubt their goal of making Iowa City a more affordable place to live. Nonetheless, the idea that we can require some business or company to change the way they operate is astonishingly haughty.

If this ordinance were to pass, developers would be skeptical about locating their businesses in Iowa City. There are very few words in our vocabulary that put more fear into business owners than “required” or “compulsory.” Business regulation can be a positive solution to some problems, but not when it condemns free enterprise and independence.

There are alternative measures that the City Council could take to keep this idea and make it more business-friendly. The council could offer city developers incentives, such as tax breaks or deferred payments, to create low-income housing.

We cannot paint a rock gold and sell it for thousands. And we shouldn’t enact ordinances that represent diversity but present larger problems.

— by Michael Davis

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