Why Boise's New Approach To Neighborhood Revitalization Could Hurt The People It's Designed To Help

Dec 17, 2014

The school day is over at Boise’s Whitney Elementary but the playground is full of children. About 140 kids each day take part in the afterschool program at the adjacent Whitney Community Center.

It has tutors to help with homework. There’s book clubs, arts and crafts, board games, basketball, outside activities, and pool and computer games for the older kids who walk over from South Junior High. Director Barbara English says some kids stay until the center closes at 7:00, but not because of all the stuff to do.

“Like this one,” she says waving to a boy who looks to be about 11. “I know he wouldn’t have anywhere to go right now.”

English says some of the kids are from middle-class families and come to the center just to have fun. But many are poor and rely on this place.

Poverty is one reason why this part of Boise was chosen to pilot the city's new approach to neighborhood revitalization. It's called Energize Our Neighborhoods, and the city wants to make it the model for all future efforts. Here's the idea: The city picks one neighborhood then focuses intense time and energy and several million dollars over a few years in hopes of making big improvements to the area.

The pilot area is the Vista neighborhood, the first place visitors see going from the airport to downtown. Median household income in Vista is $14,000 below the city as a whole. Nearly 100 percent of Whitney students qualify for free-or-reduced school lunch. At the neighborhood’s other elementary, Hawthorne, more than two-thirds qualify.

The Whitney Community Center provides an afternoon snack. For many of the kids, English says, it’s the last food they’ll get for the day.

“I’ve had one of the teenagers asking me for some toilet paper when he left the other day that he could bring home,” English says. “Sometimes you see some kids worried when they leave.”

Some of the concerns the city and residents want to address stem from poverty. There are some run down trailer parks, some neglected houses. Other neglect comes from the city and county. Large sections don’t have sidewalks or gutters.

Rev. Christina Thompson is optimistic about revitalization efforts in her neighborhood, but concerned about unintended consequences for the poor.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

“I think this neighborhood is a prime candidate for revitalization,” says Christina Thompson, pastor of nearby Whitney United Methodist Church, and a Vista resident.

Thompson has been involved with the Energize Our Neighborhoods project since it began last spring. She’s on one of the resident committees trying to choose what projects to begin first.

Some of the ideas residents have talked about include a senior center, a park, and stricter code enforcement. The city announced last week it would start an after school program at Hawthorne, though not at the scale of Whitney's.

Thompson says she’s excited to be part of the project and optimistic about its impact on the neighborhood, but she has a concern.

“If you bring up some of the housing, you make some of the housing better, is all we’re doing making it so that it’s not affordable for those of lower income anymore?” Thompson asks. “And are we just then pushing them to another neighborhood?”

Though she doesn’t use the word, Thompson is talking about gentrification. You hear stories about gentrification from all over the country.

Jaap Vos is head of Boise State University’s Community and Regional Planning Department. Vos used to live in Florida and he saw gentrification from Miami to West Palm Beach where the city built a luxury shopping center in a poor downtown neighborhood.

“Downtown revitalization of Palm Beach became a big success,” Vos says. “Very quickly all the poor people were pushed out and nobody really knew where they went. And quite frankly in that particular case I don’t think most people cared.”  

Vos says neighborhood revitalization without gentrification is difficult for cities to do.

“If a neighborhood is improving, and if you can ask higher rents, and the people cannot afford those rents, then obviously they’re going to be displaced unless you really think about, how do you make sure it doesn’t happen,” Vos says.

The design is as careful and well thought out as I can think of as a planner. - Jaap Vos

He says often cities don’t bother to think about gentrification when undertaking neighborhood revitalization or economic development projects. There can be a difference between doing something that’s good for a place and doing something that’s good for the people who live in a place.

Vos says one thing that often leads to gentrification is when an up-and-coming neighborhood has a lot of rental properties. The number of renters has been on the rise in Vista in recent years. Renters now make up 47 percent of Vista residents compared to almost 38 percent in Boise. That’s something the city and residents are concerned about.

Vos says landlords who don’t live in an area tend to cash out or raise rents when property values go up. And Boise city officials who are working on this project say if it is a success, property values will go up.

“It is a concern but the alternative is to not do anything at all,” says AnaMarie Guiles Boise’s Housing and Community Development manager. Guiles is one of the leaders of Energize Our Neighborhoods.

“We’re choosing to be proactive and invest with our community partners, knowing that preserving the unique character of that neighborhood comes with an affordability of the housing,” Guiles says.

She says there are things the city can and will do to make sure there continues to be affordable places to rent in Vista. And Guiles says one of the city’s goals is to help people who are renting in Vista buy houses there.

“We’ll make available financing tools at a low interest rate for households who are maybe renting right now, are on the cusp of considering affordable home ownership, but just for some reason, need a little assistance,” she says.

Vos says though it’s difficult, a city can improve a neighborhood in ways that are good for the majority of residents. And he says Boise is doing the most important thing. For months now, city employees have been holding public meetings to ask Vista residents what they want done in their neighborhood.

“They’re not asking the community to go to city hall, they’re actually going into the community,” Vos says. “They’re working with the neighborhood association. They’re establishing leadership teams, all vested from within the community. The design is as careful and well thought out as I can think of as a planner.” 

Vos says the key to revitalizing a neighborhood without forcing people out, is to get residents invested in the project. It has to be about what locals want, not about what the city wants. That, Vos says, is why Boise can succeed in Vista and then maybe the next neighborhood it picks. 

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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