Magda Maaoui

September 13, 2021

Congratulations, Dr Maaoui, on your PhD. Your thesis shows that inclusionary zoning can be an effective tool to encourage private developers to incorporate affordable housing units as part of market-rate development projects. Based on your study of these tools in Paris and in New York, what are the key features of inclusionary zoning that guarantee the best outcomes from the point of view of underserved communities?

Inclusionary zoning has become a common regulatory tool to spur development in big cities as well as in smaller cities. Even though the public sector’s engagement is critical, there is a growing role that private capital and private developers can play in the development of cities nowadays. Paris and New York are interesting cases to study, in my opinion, because in both cities there is a lively debate around how to make development more inclusive and more socially just. 

There is a consensus that when you inject private capital in urban development, specifically residential development, you're probably almost always going to generate gentrification, neighborhood change that will threaten to displace lower income households. I wasn't satisfied with this idea. While gentrification does often occur, when regulatory tools are applied effectively, neighborhoods that are constrained by chronic lack of investment can be turned into success stories.

I would say that the main conclusion from my dissertation is that you can use inclusionary zoning effectively in underserved communities, but you need the public sector to be extremely strong. Public sector officials who back the project need to use all the means at their disposal to negotiate with the private sector in order to define affordability levels, to structure the financing of the project, and to agree on a construction schedule. I do believe that underserved communities can be places where private capital can be used effectively, but the public sector needs to play a strong role in this.

Which leads to one of the metaphors that you use in your work: “Mixité de façade”, which could be translated in English as “window dressing diversity”. What do you mean by this? Why do principles of inclusionary zoning sometimes lead to outcomes that are far removed from what was originally intended?

As I compared two housing projects in New York and Paris, one leitmotiv that emerged was the reference to the “social mix” of residents, which I translated by “mixité”. As the expression indicates, “Mixité de façade” refers to an appearance of diversity (“façade”) in situations where it is not necessarily truly achieved. 

This expression came to me as I was trying to find a concept that summed up what policy officials referred to as the real measure of success in achieving social justice and inclusivity in those two residential projects. As I evaluated how these two projects were implemented, I wondered: “Is this elusive “social mix” that city officials aim to achieve ever going to be delivered?”

Another reason why I use this expression is because the word “façade” is well suited for a research that focuses on construction sites, plans, designs, façades of housing projects - and their subsequent incorporation in the neighborhood fabric.

Instead of focusing on the role of real estate developers in the creation of affordable housing, your research focuses on the role of local public sector officials. Why did you think that was important? Do you think that the role of the private sector as an agent of urban development has been overstated?

In the course of my research, I read so many accounts of failed urban development projects. At the heart of these stories was the introduction of private capital and the gentrification of underserved neighborhoods. In terms of inclusionary zoning programs in New York and Paris, the relationship between private capital and the public sector was often described as a David vs. Goliath struggle. But instead of focusing exclusively on the role of the private sector in affordable housing provision, I thought that it would be useful to shed light on an aspect that is equally critical: the role of the public sector. To get new answers on why certain projects were successful in delivering affordable housing and others were not, it was important to focus on the agency and accountability of public sector officials.

Let's dig a little bit deeper into that role. Your research shows that, overall, Paris was more successful in delivering affordable housing through inclusionary zoning in Aubervilliers than the City of New York in Sendero Verde in East Harlem. Why is that the case? 

My research shows a contrast between Aubervilliers, an inclusive housing project in the Paris suburbs which reached its affordability goals, and Sendero Verde in East Harlem, which is a more problematic housing development that does not necessarily cater to the needs of existing residents. 

One of the reasons for this contrast is political. The suburb of Aubervilliers has over 100 years of leftist municipal expertise in housing policy. It is one of the Paris municipalities that have been historically predominantly left-wing and dedicated to creating a broad number of welfare programs that met the needs of the working class. These welfare roots are invoked to this day by Aubervilliers public sector agents in charge of implementing housing projects.

France also has generally a tradition of managing large housing projects by involving multiple levels of public sector governance. Typically, this would include a municipal team, inter-municipal officials, as well as metropolitan and state-level involvement.

In East Harlem, another story unfolds. In that neighborhood, planning agents, namely the city council speaker and community board representatives came up with a proposed design for the housing project. But when the mayor’s office started playing a role in the implementation process, the neighborhood-proposed plan was overlooked by city agencies and officials responsible for the approval of the project. They simply did not take into consideration the suggestions, ideas and expressions of concern of East Harlem neighborhood representatives, depriving the project of local wisdom and advice that could help improve the housing project’s affordability. That, for me, is the major failure of East Harlem’s Sendero Verde.

There is currently a lot of talk about infrastructure investment in the United States. What policy changes would you recommend to further empower public sector agents in New York, to ensure that the voice of local communities are better heard and better taken into account by decision makers?

I would start with a policy recommendation that applies to both places. New York and Paris are at the forefront of securing subsidized housing programs and they also have dedicated teams of public sector agents who strive to make their neighborhoods inclusive and socially just. These metropolitan and local public institutions need to be strengthened and backed with resources from the federal and state level.

And to really improve the situation, we need to make sure that the needs of the lowest income neighborhood households are being met. This can be done by imposing affordability levels in perpetuity. We should also think about introducing robust anti-displacement measures. Additionally, even if my dissertation zooms in on historically disinvested neighborhoods, inclusionary zoning perimeters should also systematically be located in more affluent neighborhoods. 

One last question, if I may. You were carrying out the end of your research during the Covid crisis which is really quite amazing, in the sense that you must have overcome some significant challenges. What are the lessons that your research brings to the development of affordable housing in a post-Covid world? What are the main lessons that can be drawn from both the experience in Aubervilliers and in East Harlem?

Clearly the context of COVID-19 was not something I had signed up for at the beginning of my dissertation! And lucky for me, I had wrapped up my fieldwork when we reached the height of the pandemic. That does not mean that it was not complex to put it all together, in such a time of uncertainty. 

I also wanted my work to take into account the emergency we were all facing. I realized that it was timely to talk about housing provision because right now, we need to rethink city planning in order to provide housing for all in the wake of the pandemic. Being confined and in lockdown made it obvious that housing is closely linked to social justice issues. 

In cities around the world, from Minneapolis to Marseille, from San Francisco to Paris, a transatlantic awakening was taking place and mobilizing practitioners, officials, researchers, activists, and residents who were marching in the streets, calling for more equal housing. In my opinion, this awakening is a true testament to the fact that we need to allocate more resources and energy in order to fix the housing crisis globally.