Worcester City Council Takes Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance One Step Further


Sophia Lindstrom, Scarlet Staff

Progressive Worcester City Council members reached a milestone in their fight for implementing an inclusionary zoning ordinance in the city recently when the proposal was featured in an official meeting at Worcester City Council. 

Inclusionary zoning is a policy tool that opens the housing market to people of varying incomes by increasing the amount of affordable housing for lower and middle class residents in a given area. Developers are incentivized to set aside a given percentage of the housing they build as affordable housing. 

Councilors discussed a specific policy called the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance on Sept. 20. Committee members Sean Rose of District 1, Sarai Rivera of District 4, and At-Large Councilor Khrystian King voiced their support for the idea. The ordinance is also backed by the Worcester Chamber of Commerce. 

The proposal was not taken to a vote as of Sunday, Sept. 25.

According to The Worcester Telegram and Gazette, if the plan were enacted in its current form, three main changes would be implemented. First, developers would be required to set aside 15 percent of their livable apartment space for those who earn 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). They may also choose to pick the other option, which is making 10 percent of their living space affordable for those making 60 percent AMI. This is equivalent to $53,000 for a family of two. 

An Affordable Housing Trust Fund would also be established, which developers can take advantage of. Additionally, the ordinance includes a rule that both rents and sale prices cannot exceed 30 percent of any given family’s income. 

According to District 5 Councilor Etel Haxhiaj, the proposed ordinance imposes no cost on taxpayers and is “one of the few municipal policies we can use to boost our affordable housing stock”. Haxhiaj also argues that it can spread affordable housing out across the city, not just in “areas of concentrated poverty.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor Rose highlighted that only about 13.5 percent of Worcester’s housing stock is considered “affordable.”  The increasing number of available market rate apartments will reduce that stock even further, he suggested.

In Main South, 1,700 residents sent applications for affordable housing to the Worcester Community Development Corporation (CDC). Only 48 units of affordable housing were available. 65 percent of city renters make less than $50,000 per year according to the Main South CDC. 

Jump Off Campus is a resource that helps Clark University students move into nearby apartments. Of the top 22 apartments listed, none have rents below $1,650 per month. Currently, 37 percent of Clark students live off-campus

Boston, Cambridge, and Quincy have similar inclusive housing ordinances implemented in their cities like the one Worcester is considering. Boston and Springfield also have a higher percentage of affordable housing– 21 percent and 16 percent respectively—than Worcester’s 13 percent according to WGBH

Many local housing activist groups are not satisfied with the new zoning policy. This includes the Worcester Together Coalition, a bloc of some 100 activist groups in the city. They say that housing should be affordable for those under 60 percent of the area median income as opposed to the 80 percent of AMI rate the new housing ordinance proposes. 

“Fifty percent of us are under the area median income of $70,000 in earnings per year,” YMCA employee Tony Nuahn said at a Sept. 14 news conference outside City Hall. “Should I be pushed out? Should I just give up on my roots here?”

“We need inclusionary zoning that will actually include the people who need it most,” District 4 Councilor Thu Nguyen wrote in a statement on Sept. 19.. “If not, we’re not doing it right,” they said.

“What we do in a crisis is we have to take a look at what the need is in a crisis…we have to respond,” Sarai Rivera, District 4 Councilor, said in an interview with the Telegram. “This isn’t the solve-all, but it is a tool in the toolbox.”

“As we have inclusionary zoning as a topic,” Councilor Haxhiaj tweeted on 9/21, “I wonder how many of our salaries actually meet the 60 percent or 80 percent AMI to afford the increasing rent in Worcester.”

“This report leaves me with more questions,” she added. “I hope we continue to investigate.”

The advantages of the proposal are not limited to renters. Chief Development Officer Peter Dunn said in a May 2022 memo that the city would relax parking lot restrictions, including their dimensions and the number of spaces they must contain. Developers would no longer be required to provide as many parking spaces as they are currently. 

Easing parking restrictions is a common tactic used to incentivize developers to agree to inclusionary zoning policies. For example, Boston removed the requirement for developers to provide off-street parking for their residents in 2021. 

This ordinance has been proposed in the context of increased luxury housing construction in downtown Worcester. Three such buildings containing market rate units are either proposed or under construction in the Polar Park area. According to Worcester Patch, market rate units “cost as much as the market will bear, and (are) not necessarily affordable for many local residents.”

According to Bill Shaner of Worcester Sucks and I Love It, a Worcester-based news blog, four new luxury apartment developments have been slated for construction in the past week. These apartments are meant to be affordable with a monthly rate of $1,547 for an individual making $61,900 per year or less and $1,768 monthly for a couple making $70,750 per year. 

Former City Manager, Edward M. Augustus Jr., introduced the idea to develop an inclusionary zoning ordinance to address the gap between income and rising rents across the city in May of this year. Since then, the City Council’s Economic Development Committee has been formulating the details of how such a policy would play out in Worcester. 

Executive Officer with the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, Joseph Landers, said that he “did not oppose” the ordinance in May when it was first proposed. However, he argued that “building affordable units isn’t always as profitable for developers.” 

Executive Director of the Main South Community Development Corporation, Steve Teasdale, hopes that 300 to 500 new units of affordable housing will become available with the ordinance. Unlike some, he supports the Worcester Housing Coalition’s drive to take the inclusionary zoning ordinance further. 

“A policy that ties affordability to 80 percent of median income would allow developers in Worcester to charge up to $2,300/month for an available three-bedroom unit” Teasdale said in an interview with Masslive. “That’s not affordable to most families… that’s still not a giveaway.”