Our Changing Idaho: What Lessons Boise Can Learn From Growth Across The Country

Jun 29, 2018

Just over 100 people moved to Idaho on average each day last year – with about 19 per day landing in Boise. What can this community learn from bigger cities that have already grappled with a population boom and an affordable housing crisis?

It’s no secret that it’s a seller’s market when it comes to Boise real estate: The median home price for Ada County hit a record high of $305,000 in May.

At the same time, the number of houses on the market shrank to an all-time low this past February, according to Boise Regional Realtors, an industry group that tracks these statistics.

Such a squeeze has led to bidding wars – and even problems for homeowners looking to downsize their lifestyle, as reported by the Idaho Statesman.

It’s a tight market for renters, too.

In Ada County, the rental vacancy rate for the first three months of 2018 was a low 3.2 percent, according to the Southwest Idaho Chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers.

But Boise is far from the first city to struggle to offer affordable housing options for low- and middle-income residents.

“I think we’re still in the throes of trying to find out how to deal with this,” says Marty Curry, an instructor at University of Washington’s Urban Design and Planning program.

She spent 30 years as a planner, including a stint as the director of Seattle’s Planning Commission.

Since 2010, the city added 116,000 people, leading to soaring rents and housing prices.

“We had a downturn and we wanted growth, but we had no idea that it would come as quickly as it did and we had no idea how to deal with it,” says Curry. She says planners were caught flat-footed.

Most recently, Seattle City Council passedand quickly repealed a month later – a so-called “head tax” to raise funds for affordable housing. The tax would’ve cost the city’s largest businesses $275 per employee.

People fill a hallway before a Seattle City Council meeting where the council was expected to vote on a "head tax" in May. Council members eventually passed, and subsequently repealed, the measure, which would've earmarked tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing projects.
Credit AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Like a lot of cities, Seattle wants to add density within city limits by building duplexes and apartment buildings in areas traditionally dotted with single-family homes.

The hope is building more housing of any kind will keep prices down – or at least stabilize them.

“I don’t know if that really works because people are still trying to buy homes,” Curry says.

Seattle’s median home sale price was $731,000 in April, according to Zillow, and the local real estate market there has barely caught its breath over the past few years.

Like Seattle, Portland has also felt the crunch. More than 64,000 new residents have settled there since the turn of the decade.

But Portland home prices aren’t nearly as high as its neighbor to the north, with Zillow pegging a median sale price of $429,000 in April.

But Portland has its own longstanding way of trying to manage its growth.

"It's near suicidal for a local government to say, "We are actually going to prioritize those of us who are least well off." -Sy Adler

In the 1970s, Oregon lawmakers mandated cities create their own urban growth boundaries, which limits where developers can build.

Sy Adler, Associate Dean of Portland State University’s College of Urban and Public Affairs says the original goal – to protect Oregon’s bountiful vineyards and verdant fields – has been a success.

But critics of the urban growth boundary say the policy has inflated home values as land within it has become pricier and more scarce.

In 2016, Portland residents passed a $258 million bond measure to build 1,300 affordable housing units – far less than the tens of thousands of units needed, according to the city’s housing bureau.

City leaders have also passed tenant-friendly ordinances that require many landlords to pay up to $4,500 in relocation costs for no-cause evictions or if they raise rent by more than 10 percent.

So what’s the solution?

"Government often sets the table..."

There are 2,491 affordable rental units in Boise according to a 2015 Housing survey commissioned by the city, compared to more than 29,500 low- to moderate-income households who live here.

In Boise, as in most major cities, many of these affordable apartments and homes were built and maintained by governmental or nonprofit entities.

“We’ve depended so heavily for a very long time now on a nonprofit sector to supply significant numbers of affordable housing units, but that’s inherently a fragile thing,” Adler says.

Instead, he says the federal government and its deep pockets needs to have a hand in investing in these types of projects again.

"What we've been doing in much of the United States is we've really been subsidizing the sprawl." -Tom Daniels

In the 1970s, the federal government built affordable housing projects to house low-income Americans, but it hasn’t build any units at such a scale since, according to a 2017 study by the Urban Institute.

When a federal government pulls back on such projects, “…it’s impossible for a local government on its own to make much of a dent,” Adler says.

But Idaho is a deep red state such where rent control isn’t really even whispered about and free market solutions are king.

Amanda Ashley, who leads Boise State University’s Urban Studies and Community Development program says city governments can play a role, but they can’t unilaterally solve the problem.

“Government often sets the table and provides both carrots and sticks in order to do or provide different types of services that they think are important for the community,” Ashley says.

For example, cities might offer tax breaks and grants, but also pass policies requiring a set number of affordable units in new developments.

Boise already offers $2,000 grants to affordable housing developers. So far, developers of the 134-unit Adare Manor development on Fairview Ave have applied for the program. Two other projects are eligible, but haven't yet submitted paperwork. The city has helped fund a new housing complex for the chronically homeless that’s set to open in fall of 2018.

Warming Up To Density

Vast expanses, seemingly endless opportunity and the thought of settling down to your own homestead permeated the minds of daydreamers who made the trek westward in the 19th century.

But those attitudes are still pervasive in many who live in the region. Two-thirds of Boise homes are detached, single-family houses, according to U.S. Census data.

“We’re used to this space and it’s very hard to get used to telling them to get used to the duplex next door,” says Curry, the University of Washington instructor.

Community groups have decried some attempts to boost the city’s density, including in Northwest Boise.

But density doesn’t have to be thought of as a new swear word according to Tom Daniels, the architect behind Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s farmland preservation efforts.

“When you talk about density a lot of people think, you know, skyscrapers in NYC or something like that, but it doesn’t have to be a 40-story monolith,” Daniels says.

Instead, it could include attached townhomes, low-rise apartments or simply building on smaller lot sizes.

Along with density, open, communal spaces become critical, according to Curry. Instead of sitting in your backyard, you might have to walk a block or two to the nearest park bench to enjoy a late summer night.

Ashley, who’s lived in several big cities before settling in Boise seven years ago, says she thinks people here are starting to come around to that idea.

Many people already flock to the Greenbelt to enjoy sunny days, but these communal, open spaces will become critical for all to enjoy if Boise becomes more dense, according to planning experts.
Credit Boise State Public Radio

“I see that shift happening a little bit more that you have to have some kind of compromise there of what you need to do to accomplish what your own individual wants and desires are with also the fact that we live in a city and a community that requires us to share,” she says.

The biggest takeaway, Daniels says, is to not close your eyes and pretend like the world isn’t changing around you.

“You’re not going to stop the growth … The real challenge for planning is, ‘How do you best accommodate that growth?’”

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