Growing Garden City: How 'Inevitable' Gentrification Could Push Out Low-Income Residents

May 13, 2015

Garden City has long been known for mobile home parks and poverty. But with more than three miles of underused riverfront property, developers have become interested in Garden City's poorest area. High-end houses are now being built next to mobile homes.

On a recent spring day, a big man and a skinny teenager are hauling a couch out of one of those mobile homes. David Green and his son live in the one next door. They’re cleaning this unit out for the owner of the mobile home park. Green says it’s sad - his neighbor had to move but couldn’t afford to move his furniture.

Garden City resident David Green lives in one of the city's mobile homes. He does remodeling and sings in a rock band. He describes his band, Aaron 51, as classic metal with an environmental awareness message.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

In addition to odd jobs for his landlord, Green does remodeling and sings in a rock band. He loves his neighborhood; the greenbelt trail and the Boise River are yards away.

“Oh, it’s wonderful, it really is,” Green says. “And this is such a neat area because everybody knows each other, and we watch each other’s backs and we take care of the properties. Everybody works, has jobs. It’s a really clean, family orientated area.”

But Green doesn’t expect any of these mobile homes to be here in a few years. He says the land is just too valuable.

“Prime, prime real estate, absolutely,” Green says. “And I’m sure they want to develop it into huge condos and anything else they can make out of it.”

He says some of his neighbors are worried that if that happens they won’t be able to find anywhere affordable to live that’s closer than Nampa or Caldwell. Green also believes the city government wants to get rid of all mobile homes in Garden City as soon as possible.

Two blocks away, past Boise’s Whitewater Park and a foot bridge that connects Garden City to Boise, are the high-end homes of the Waterfront District. Some are still under construction. This is the first development of its kind in historically poor, southeast Garden City.

Todd Hans is weeding in front of the house he bought here two years ago. Hans says he grew up in the Boise area and Garden City always had a bad reputation. But he thinks that’s changing and he was excited to move to here.

Todd Hans likes the changes happening in southeast Garden City, especially all the artists moving into the area.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

“From this side of the river you have a great view of downtown Boise, a great view of the new Esther Simplot Park that’s coming in, and the mountains,” Hans says. “I think this side of the river has been ripe for development for a long time. I don’t want to displace the normal Garden City residents. I want a mixed community.”

Hans thinks there will be more neighborhoods like the Waterfront built soon. He hopes people won’t lose their homes because of that, but he says he’s worked hard to realize his own homeownership dreams. He doesn’t know if he can have it both ways.

“My father was a postal worker, you know, not high income,” Hans says. “I’ve worked at Micron for almost 20 years now. [I] saved up money and lost money and was able to have enough to move down here. I don’t want to displace people who want to live here and have been here. If that’s a pipe dream…maybe it’s a pipe dream.”

Diane Kushlan is a community planner who consulted Garden City when it drafted its master plan in 2006.

“I think it’s inevitable [many low-income Garden City residents] will be displaced,” she says. “But I think there’s opportunities in other parts of Garden City.”

Kushlan thinks all the land along the south side of the river will be redeveloped over the next several years. She says low income people will - at a minimum - be pushed away from the river.

“The rivers [used to be] the dumping grounds,” Kushlan says. “That was where the crappy uses went. And now we’re seeing rivers as a significant amenity, so you’re going to see those lands convert. They’re just really underutilized pieces of property.”

Todd Hans says construction noise has been the constant soundtrack of his life since moving into the Waterfront District two years ago.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Kushlan says, just because people will be displaced doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be pushed out of Garden City. She says there is a lot of land in town that could go from business, to low-income residential.

“So if we can find a way to create affordable housing in those infill lands, then I think there’s hope that people who live in Garden City now, will be able to find something at least as close by,” Kushlan says.  

Joe Swenson is trying to do just that. Swenson directs Neighborworks Boise, a nonprofit dedicated to homeownership, which until recently was called Neighborhood Housing Services. Neighborworks will soon start building 50 small houses in Garden City for low-income residents to own.

“Because we know that that area will start to gentrify, so we want to get in there early,” Swenson says. “We’re not saying we’re the solution to everything, but we’re trying to curb the potential for it to really become gentrified.”

This large, privately-developed apartment complex going up now in the center of southeast Garden City has some units reserved for affordable housing.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

But Swenson says everything under construction or even being discussed, is for people on the higher end of the low-income spectrum.  So the people most likely to be pushed out of Garden City entirely are its poorest residents.

“It’s clearly an issue that’s looking for a solution,” Swenson says. “Everybody I talk to in the community development world is struggling with the same issues.”

The problem is you can’t replace the ancient mobile homes some Garden City residents live in, for anything nearly as cheap. Neighborworks doesn’t know how much its houses will cost, but certainly more than the $300 a month some of Garden City's run-down mobile homes rent for.

Mayor John Evans is a developer by trade. Before becoming involved with city government, he helped build some high-end Garden City neighborhoods north of the Boise River.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

And city leaders want the oldest mobile homes gone. Mayor John Evans says, contrary to what some people believe, the city does not want to demolish every mobile home, just ones that are unsafe.

“There’s going to be a continuing need for people who don’t want to live in an apartment,” Evans says. “Even if it’s five or ten feet around the perimeter of a trailer house, they want their own place. And I respect that. And for the foreseeable future that’s going to be a significant part of our housing stock in Garden City.”

By some estimates, mobile homes are 25 percent of Garden City’s existing housing stock.

Evans is excited about the development that has begun in the historically-poor, southeast part of town. He calls himself a “free market guy” and says the market will largely dictate what happens. But he’s conflicted. Evans talks about a moral duty the city has to all Garden City residents.

“How do we take care of the folks we have here, whether they’re on the upper end of the scale or the lower end of the scale? To use that morality word, I have to internally figure out where that balance is.”

Planning consultant Diane Kushlan says Garden City is doing all it can to keep low-income housing. But she says there isn’t much Idaho cities can do. She says unlike many states, Idaho law doesn’t have much to say about low income housing.

And she says this isn’t just a Garden City problem. She says the entire Treasure Valley could be facing a low income housing shortage.

And she says, people in Boise and Meridian and Eagle don’t realize how much the local economy depends on the labor of low-income Garden City residents. She says if many of them are pushed far out of the heart of the valley, it could create disruptions everyone would feel.

“We all have an ownership in ensuring that that population, which is so vital to all of us, has a place to live,” Kushlan says.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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