The Dream Revisited

Exclusionary Zoning & Fear: A Developer’s Perspective

by Jon Vogel | April 2014

In Marge Turner’s post “Why haven’t we made more progress in reducing segregation,” Ms. Turner identifies numerous factors that have served as challenges to creating the desired outcome of more integrated neighborhoods and schools.  As a developer of rental housing in both urban and suburban markets, I have seen firsthand how and why some of these obstacles are put into place, and how they can be overcome.

It is clear that many towns in this region use their power to control zoning in ways that serve to limit housing opportunity. The reasons for this approach range from perceived fiscal prudence to xenophobia. Whether nefarious motives are at play is really not all that important. It's the disparate impact on minority populations that matters, and potentially appropriate rationales for zoning decisions often fall short of the necessary legal standard, resulting in appropriate oversight by the courts. The bottom line is that municipalities that use exclusionary zoning need to lose their right to control their own destiny. This is how it works in New Jersey under the Mt. Laurel jurisprudence.  It has worked relatively well, notwithstanding the trouble over the last five years in producing new affordable housing regulations that satisfy the courts. Of course, advocates of inclusion and opportunity need to support more integrative affordable housing policies at the federal level and in state legislatures.  However, the courts have done a fine job of serving minorities and the unhoused poor in New Jersey over the last 30 years, and this litigation-based model also needs to be supported and expanded to other states, particularly if real change is to happen anytime soon.

Again, not all towns with exclusionary housing policies are acting with bad intent. Rather, many are facing real or perceived economic challenges, particularly with respect to their school systems. One of the biggest concerns housing developers hear is that new housing will result in financial burdens for existing homeowners, particularly in the Northeast with our already high single-family property tax burdens. We hear questions like “How many school children are expected to live in the new development?” and “Are the projected tax revenues sufficient to cover the increased costs?” Tax concerns become more complicated when affordable housing is at stake.  Race is unquestionably a catalyst in what is perceived by some to be a zero sum game.  I wish I had never heard the question, but it bears repeating: “Why do I have to pay to educate their kids?" Towns that voluntarily embrace inclusion should be rewarded with school funding and other state funding that eases any burden that growth may cause.  Massachusetts already has a program for this known as 40S and it is a step in the right direction.

But more importantly, we also must be mindful that the perceived school burdens generally far exceed the reality. This "education issue" requires its own education of zoning decision makers as to the real impacts, so that fear does not control the debate. The data show that new market rate rental housing, particularly in downtown transit-oriented locations, generates relatively few school-aged children, and the few who do move in can often be easily accommodated within the existing school infrastructure. The use of “average cost per child” measures to quantify the economic burden of educating one more student is flawed given that marginal costs are much lower.  Fixed costs that will not increase as a result of increased enrollment include senior administrative staff (e.g. there will only be one Superintendent of the school district) and most facilities and physical plant costs. Thus, together with some public financial support, education of decision makers can help bridge the gap between what should be done to accommodate diversity and integration, and what will be done.

Finally, we need to celebrate success. There are a handful of towns in the region, including South Orange/Maplewood and Montclair in New Jersey, that have shown that diversity of housing, income, and race are all worth celebrating. These suburban towns have embraced multifamily housing, and they have schools that have achieved academic and artistic excellence in a multicultural setting. The experience of students in these schools is further enhanced by all that a diverse student body can offer.  Meanwhile, rents for luxury apartments in these towns are among the highest of any location in New Jersey. Having direct access to the Manhattan employment market via New Jersey Transit helps. But it is worth noting that embracing diversity does not seem to hurt economic viability; rather it may actually stimulate demand within the marketplace.

Jon Vogel is Vice President of Development at AvalonBay Communities, a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) which develops, acquires and manages apartment communities across the United States.

More in Discussion 3: Ending Segregation: Our Progress Today