February 28, 2022

Brandon Donnelly: On Inclusionary Zoning

As I’ve said before, Toronto-based designer-developer Brandon Donnelly is the best urban blogger in the country for those of us who wish to get into the weeds, notably on the economics of housing, affordable and otherwise.  Here’s an example, excerpting several of his posts on an issue highly relevant in Toronto but, curiously, not one that has generated that much discussion in Vancouver.  I am talking about IZ – Inclusionary Zoning.  Yes, very technical – but that’s why Donnelly is an important source.  He helps get beyond the rhetorical and into the reality of a more complicated issue than any of us wish it would be


Back in 2017, Portland, Oregon enacted new inclusionary zoning (IZ) policies mandating that all new residential projects with 20 or more units must deliver a specified amount of affordable housing. …

Now that it’s been a couple more years, it is perhaps worth checking in on Portland. …   From 2019 to 2020, new multi-unit housing permits in Portland fell by more than 60%. I really don’t know the Portland market and so it’s hard for me to comment on whether it is solely the fault of IZ, but there was a peak in 2017 and now housing permits are down significantly. However, they were also down significantly during the financial crisis. …

That said, a similar market response was recently reported in another Portland — Portland, Maine. In 2020, the city implemented a “Green New Deal” that stipulated, among other things, that all new residential developments with 10+ units would be subject to their new IZ policies. It has only been just over a year, but according to the city’s planning department, there were 756 new housing units on the books in 2020 prior to the new IZ policies. And since then, that figure has dropped to 139 new housing units. This is admittedly a small market and a relatively short time horizon, but it is still a data point.


I came across this chart from NBLC:

What you are seeing here is a comparison between a typical market development before IZ and a development after IZ. As you can see, soft costs remain the same, hard costs remain the same, and the profit margin remains the same. What changes is the overall revenue. Market revenue goes down because you now have fewer market-rate units and a new IZ revenue is added, which is the revenue generated from the addition of affordable units to the project.

But when you add up the market revenue and the IZ revenue, you don’t get back to the same economic equilibrium. In other words, there has been a destruction of value, and so something is going to have to give in order for this project to pencil and remain financeable. Otherwise, no development will take place. This shortfall is the red box area in the above graph that says, “impact of inclusionary zoning.”

We have discussed this red box gap a lot on the blog, because how you think this gap gets filled might determine how you think of inclusionary zoning as a policy tool. In this particular instance/graph, the gap is filled by a reduction in the value of the land. Everything else remains static. So what is effectively happening in this model is that the landowner, who has decided to sell their land to the above developer, is now the one who has to indirectly pay for this new affordable housing.

This may seem like a sensible way to go about it. I mean, people who own land must be rich. Let’s make them pay. But is this actually what is going to happen in practice and over extended periods of time? Soft costs — things like development charges — are always going up. Why aren’t land values perpetually declining in order to offset these additional costs? It is largely because market revenues have also been increasing. Housing keeps getting more expensive. And that is what has been keeping the market going.

I suspect that over an extended period of time, the same thing will happen here.


My friend Randy Gladman, who is senior vice-president of development advisory at Colliers here in Toronto, published an opinion piece in the Financial Post last week about the hidden costs of inclusionary zoning. It is consistent with the ad nauseam discussions that we have been having on this blog for the past few years, but it of course remains an important read.


As many of you know, I struggle with inclusionary zoning. Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I just haven’t been able to find much data suggesting that it can meaningfully increase overall housing supply and the supply of new affordable units. So if any of you are aware of some good case studies outlining successful examples, please share them in the comment section below.

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  1. I don’t buy Mr. Donnelly’s assertion; it’s short-sighted and too focused on value only. Zero IZ units and loads of market based or far fewer market based but some IZ units? If the sole name of the game were adding the tax base, he’d be right. Fewer units overall means less municipal revenue.

    But that’s not the sole name of the game. Building affordable units is, and it’s obvious that the oversimplified ‘build as many as you can and the price will drop’ has not materialized – at least not with the relatively small numbers in those cities. Also, unrestricted, market based development is inevitably done in greenbelts and consists of ‘just add water’ estates. Not sustainable, not smart, but just a slightly lower sticker price.

    The overall value of what we get for inclusionary housing supersedes the relative reduction in total single family homes. It just doesn’t make as much of a short-term buck.

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