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Analysis: Boise is about to add a lot more people. Buckle up


It’s probably hit your radar a few times this weekend: HuffPo’s latest story titled America’s Housing Crisis Is Spreading To Smaller Cities with a shiny picture of the Boise skyline on the top.

The story sums up the blistering growth hitting the City of Trees, and the divides it has exposed: screaming matches over baseball stadiums, large income inequality gaps, and the death of a five-year-old living in a car at the Walmart parking lot.

It also drops a stunning stat: Boise could add 200,000 more people over the next seven or so years. (The story refers to this Wall Street Journal story from last year that makes the same claim but does not cite it).

The projection significantly outstrips the Idaho Department of Labor projection for the entire SW Idaho region – which estimates adding just 100,000 people by 2025.

SW Idaho population project

Courtesy Idaho Department of Labor

You say big potato. I say huge potato.  EIther way — it’s a growing potato.

HuffPo notes a few problems are starting to weave together to magnify the challenge: A lack of new homes being built and friction in government – local and state.

Cash needed, but no option

In March, I laid out the plan by Valley Regional Transit to massively expand the bus system in Ada and Canyon Counties. They make a compelling case the area needs better transit options. But the plan rests on raising taxes to fund the expansion with a local option tax vote.  That is currently banned by state law. This quote from my friend Dr. Jim Weatherby – the dean of Idaho political analysts – sticks in my head:

“There is little reason to believe that negative legislative attitudes toward a feared patchwork of new local taxes and rural hostility toward granting local option to Idaho’s larger cities will change any time soon,” Weatherby said.

Idaho remains a fiscally conservative state, and lawmakers and other state leaders aren’t interested in the idea of letting voters in Ada and Canyon Counties raise their own taxes.

VRT isn’t the only group that would like some local option cash. In 2010, Boise Mayor David Bieter told Boise Weekly he liked the idea of local option taxes for his long-hoped-for streetcar plan. Even The Idaho Press-Tribune advocated for a LOT for a new jail in Canyon County.

A 2010 study by the Capital City Development Corporation on the streetcar outlined a way to push the local option option along:

The City of Boise and Valley Regional Transit should enlist the private sector to take the lead in collaborating with other cities, counties, chambers of commerce and other organizations in the Boise Valley to obtain a dedicated source of transit funding including an enabling statute allowing local option taxing authority.

Building up, or rising up

City leaders are pushing for more density and taller buildings in the Downtown Boise core. They are wrapped up in the 2011 version of Blueprint Boise – the document which guides development around the city.  This plan led Boise’s Planning and Zoning Commission to say no to developer/city councilor/CCDC commissioner Scot Ludwig’s plan for two tall towers connected by a skybridge because the area was not zoned for buildings that tall (among other concerns).  Ludwig has tweaked the plan and now his fellow elected officials on the Boise City Council will decide if the plan can proceed.

If Boise is going to add capacity for another 100,000 or 200,000 people – two things are going to have to happen: more homes are going to have to be built, and we are going to have to find the people to build them.  The HuffPost piece details how the 2008 market crash drove much of the construction sector under, and says in 2007 there were twice as many building permits being issued as in 2018.

Last year, a group of people rose up to fight a CVS pharmacy location with a drive-through on State St. that would have displaced low-income housing.  That effort grew into Vanishing Boise which is now fighting a multi-front battle over a mind-boggling array of development issues:

The City has responded with a few town halls and other events, but the tone of Vanishing Boise and its founder Lori Dicaire is feisty and fed up.  How representative the group is of the overall Boise public is hard to say and will be more apparent in the fall of 2019 when several city council seats and the mayorship is up for election.

Growth is a major issue in the most populous portion of the state, but has hardly come up in any of the recent debates for statewide and federal offices.

Growth won’t stop

The idea that people will stop moving to Boise is at best far-fetched and worst delusional.  The Treasure Valley has many of the things folks from around the country only dream of. An argument can be made that state and local leaders could tamp down efforts to attract business or tourists or new residents – but a stagnant economy leads to its own set of problems.

The balance is tricky, and as a life-long Boise resident, I understand the frustration the problems growth bring.  We can’t close the gates or build a wall and keep people from moving to Boise from California or Seattle or Texas or anywhere else.  Saying no to every development isn’t going to help – in fact, it’s going to drive rents and home prices even higher and increase the income inequality problem.  Boise – and the Treasure Valley as a whole – have to grow smart.

Right now there is conflict everywhere. Between citizens and city hall. Between city hall and the legislature. Between ACHD and city leaders. Between ACHD and citizens.

To grow smart, different constituencies are going to have to find ways to work together, compromise and deal with each other in a way that is open-minded and fair (less shouting, fewer secrets) – regardless of whether they are elected or not – or work at city hall or the Statehouse.

Without compromise, Boise is going to turn into a mighty unpleasant place.

(Header photo courtesy Jeremy Conant/Treefort Music Festival, CC BY 2.0)

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