Growing Garden City: A Town Of Poverty And Wealth And Not Much In Between

May 12, 2015

Garden City is well known for being one of the poorest towns in the Treasure Valley, but it also has some of the richest neighborhoods in the area.

In the southeast part of Garden City where Debra Olive lives, the median household income is $23,000. That’s half the state's median income and below the federal poverty line for a family of four. This section of town is home to more than a third of the city’s 11,000 residents.

Olive sits in her kitchen by a window air conditioner. There’s a picture of hands locked in prayer and another of Elvis nearby; she describes her house as small but comfortable.

“We have our bedroom in our living room, but hey,” she says laughing.

A queen size bed takes up most of the living room; it’s too big to fit in the one bedroom.

Olive is a longtime Garden City resident.

“They didn’t call it Garden City when I was a kid,” she says. “They called it Garbage City. And it used to kind of irritate me but, we just went on and lived our lives.”

At the opposite end of town, Shelly Davis-Brunner goes through boxes. She’s been a widow for several years but is still trying to figure out what to do with her husband’s collection of antique hunting and fishing equipment. Her house is full of things like hand-painted wooden fishing lures; she thinks she has 300 hunting decoys.

Davis-Brunner moved here more than 20 years ago. She says her husband dreamed of living on the water. She loves her neighborhood, but wishes it were not in Garden City.

“There still is a stigma about Garden City being low income,” she says.

Shelly Davis-Brunner loves the backyard pond she shares with a few neighbors but she's thinking of swapping her canoe for a kayak.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

In the northwest part of town - where Davis-Brunner lives - the median income is about $51,000 and more than 10 percent of residents make more than $150,000 a year.  

Garden City is bisected by the Boise River. Since the 1980s it’s largely been poor people on the south side and wealthy people on the north. There are exceptions. There are established high-end neighborhoods on the south bank in the west end of town and mobile homes north of the river.

The U.S. Census Bureau's tract 11 is Garden City south of the Boise River and east of Glenwood Street. Three other tracts cover parts of Garden City. Those tracts also cover parts of Boise so it's more difficult to get a demographic picture of people who live in northeast, northwest or southwest Garden City.
Credit Census

Many people don’t even know Garden City extends north of the river. When Davis-Brunner tells people where she lives, she doesn’t say Garden City.

“I say Boise," she says. "I would rather be identified as a Boisean." 

Davis-Brunner’s neighbors include Garden City’s mayor. Most city council members also live north of the river; that contributes to the distrust some south-side residents feel toward city government.

David Green is among them. He is one of many Garden City residents who live in a mobile home. By some estimates, a quarter of the city’s housing stock is mobile homes. Green is bothered by city leaders' stance on his type of housing.

“They’re shoving really hard,” Green says. “They really, I feel, want to move out the lower income families. And the city’s been pushing, pushing. They want all this gone and they want to see all new stuff.”

Garden City has increased regulation on mobile homes in recent years, but city officials say they only want to get rid of ones that are unsafe.

Debra Olive doesn’t think the city is out to get poor people. She believes that, for the most part, wealthy residents rarely think about low income ones.  But she says there are some who look down on those in poverty.

“And you have to have the wisdom to know that not all people are going through this because of choices they’ve made,” Olive says. “It’s just kind of, life happens. If I ran into someone who thought I was trash or however they want to look at it, I would pray for them.”

I say [I live in] Boise. I would rather be identified as a Boisean.

In the northwest part of town, Shelly Davis-Brunner admits she doesn’t spend much time thinking about Garden City residents beyond her own neighborhood. But she says she doesn’t look down on people on the other side of the river.

“There’s some people who will go, 'Uh, they’re just low income people.' I think that’s kind of snobby,” she says. “And I don’t resent the people that are in the trailer parks at all. They’ve got to have a place to live, and where is that going to be? I’m concerned about that.”

What Davis-Brunner and a lot of people on both sides of the river are concerned about is potential gentrification in southeast Garden City. While historically the southeast has been almost entirely low-income, developers have built high end homes there in the last decade.

Garden City Mayor John Evans is also concerned about what will happen to low income residents if property values go up. But Evans is also excited for the change; he says Garden City doesn’t provide many services compared to some towns. 

“Those things we do do, we need to do well and it costs money,” Evans says. “And a significant part of that money comes from assessed values on the property within the city. So do we want to see values increase? We do, but one of the primary reasons we do is that every year we have to come up with more money.”   

Garden City has more people at the ends of the income spectrum and fewer in the middle.
Credit screen grab usa.com

Garden City has a little bit higher proportion of people who make more than $100,000 a year than Idaho as a whole. But it has a much higher proportion of people who make less than $30,000. It also has a much smaller proportion of people who fall in between. That means the median household income citywide is well below average.

So, more development is good for the city’s budget. But Evans says that shift comes with practical and moral challenges.

“The system in Idaho really places growth in assessed value as a driving force for local governments," Evans says. "So that really incentivizes us to grow. So you get conflicting issues. We need to have low-income housing available. [But] there’s only so much, as a service provider, you can afford to have, then your demand will outrun your ability to perform.”

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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