Guest columnist Gerry Weiss: Inclusionary zoning changes can work in Amherst

Thursday, May 27, 2021

There are discussions happening in Amherst town government right now that will determine two aspects of future downtown construction; design standards for new buildings and whether inclusionary zoning will be a required feature of those new residential buildings.

I will focus today on inclusionary zoning. The need for a more affordable workforce and low-income housing in Amherst has been well documented. The Planning Department has come up with a proposed bylaw change that would easily make this happen.

The Mass Smart Growth-Smart Energy Toolkit says that inclusionary zoning is an effective tool for communities that want to increase the affordable housing options. Inclusionary zoning uses the marketplace to generate affordable housing without requiring significant expenditures by the municipality. This zoning is designed to stimulate economic development by increasing the range of housing types for the local workforce, thus helping to retain and attract new business investment, and frees up additional disposable income for low- and moderate-income households to spend in the local economy, the toolkit explains.

“When correctly designed, the inclusion of affordable units in a residential or mixed-use project has been proven to add diversity and social value without compromising the quality or the market appeal of development,” the toolkit states.

In addition, inclusionary zoning regulations help communities work toward attainment of several sustainable development principles:

■ Expand housing opportunities: Inclusionary zoning helps provide housing to meet the needs of people of all abilities, income levels and household types. Inclusionary zoning can also be used to help coordinate housing with existing jobs, transit and services.

■ Advance equity. Inclusionary zoning helps to ensure social and economic justice in a community by providing a more level playing field for developers and encouraging more low- and moderate-income housing.

■Make efficient decisions. Developers can also benefit from mandatory inclusionary housing bylaws as they provide a uniform, predictable process that gives more certainty up front about the feasibility of a development proposal.

■Increase job and business opportunities: Inclusionary zoning supports the growth of new and existing businesses by increasing the supply of moderately priced housing for local workers.

Reading all this, one might think that there would be a great deal of support for inclusionary zoning. However, the passage of such a zoning law is not a given. Amherst currently has an inclusionary zoning bylaw. But a questionable interpretation given to that law by our then town planner and Planning Board in 2009 greatly weakened the law and allowed all three of the newest residential buildings downtown to be built without a single affordable unit.

The Planning Department has come up with a fix for that interpretation, but there is no consensus on the Town Council to pass this fix.

Again, quoting from State Smart Growth-Smart Energy Toolkit: “A common concern about inclusionary zoning is that it may slow the pace of development, exacerbating the affordable housing supply problem and acting as a disincentive for private developers who may be considering investing in a community. Studies have shown that inclusionary zoning does not in fact slow the pace of private development in a community. Residential development rates are driven much more by the strength of the local housing market and broader economic and market trends.”

One need only to observe the three residential developments created and being created on University Drive and Route 9, to see that inclusionary zoning is quite doable. Those three projects, when completed, will provide 20 new affordable units to our town, compared with none in the three newest downtown buildings with a fourth and fifth on the way also with none.

On May 19, the Amherst Planning Board unanimously approved the inclusionary zoning amendments suggested by the Planning Department. If this makes sense to you, please encourage your town councilors to adopt this critical zoning amendment.

Gerry Weiss, a psychotherapist, was a member of the Amherst Select Board from 2004 to 2010 and a member of Town Meeting for 19 years.