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McLean on Brookings report: Boise’s falling behind, what can be done to address its findings

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GUEST OPINION

Editor’s note: BoiseDev solicited opinion pieces on May’s Brookings Report outlining challenges the Boise metro area faces from the top two candidates for Boise mayor. Council president Lauren McLean submitted the piece below.

Last month, the Brookings Institute released a report on the tenuous stability of Boise’s rapid growth. The report indicated that not only were middle-class wages worse than during the recession, Boise’s long-term prospects were less than rosy. Sadly, I’ve been hearing stories from Boise residents all year that corroborate these findings: Boise is falling behind and our city’s problems will only worsen without bold and urgent action.

Despite our growth, median earnings have declined 6%. We are at record low unemployment, yet Brookings found that the power of our wages has decreased and poverty has increased. Our growth has disproportionately benefited our highest wage earners while leaving out the middle and working classes. That’s a problem, and disproves that “livability” has been attained and shared throughout our city.

And the issue is not just with low wages. We’re twenty years behind in tackling real transit solutions. We’re 10,000 homes short of current need. And these challenges and shortages impact folks across age groups and neighborhoods, from college graduates just starting out to retired Baby Boomers and everyone in-between. So many of our neighbors are living the findings of the report: they can no longer find an affordable toe-hold in the place they love and call home.

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So, shortly after the report was released, I was in Washington DC and met with the authors of the Brookings report. They confirmed my belief that Boise is truly a city at the crossroads.

My biggest take-away from that meeting? The key to our long-term economic success is ensuring that everyone shares in opportunity and prosperity. Economic mobility is only possible when everyone can access jobs, affordable housing, lower commuting costs and times, and access to quality healthcare and childcare.

So, what can be done? Plenty.

Though Boise is playing catch-up (and though Idaho cities have their powers limited by the State), there is still plenty our next mayor can prioritize via policy and strategic partnerships. They include:

1. Grow and Attract Good Jobs In Strategic Industries.

Not all jobs are created equally. Here in Boise, 48% of our jobs are low-wage, which is 4% above the national average. We need to be focused beyond just quantity: meaningful, good-paying, quality jobs are the key to our future. We need strategic industries clustered together to build a rich ecosystem of opportunity for workers. And we need to stop the race to the bottom on tax incentives for outside businesses. We need leaders like Cece Andrus who so believed in the potential of our people and the value of this valley that he famously told Hewlett Packard’s founder that, rather than tax incentives, he’d welcome the company as a partner in our people’s prosperity. That’s exactly the type of courage, vision and leadership this moment demands.

2. Enrich and Expand Our Talent Pipeline.

We can attract more strategic, better-paying industries if we have the labor and talent pool to draw from. That’s where an investment in education – from early childhood to later life upskilling – helps all kinds of people transition to the jobs of today and tomorrow. I’m a long-time supporter of Boise schools, and value the partnership they provide in community centers, pre-K, and through our strong neighborhood schools. We can expand our local early childhood programs so that every child has a strong start. And increasing our investment in internships, technical education and opportunities that give a nod to the future of work are important to ensure we have the workforce we’ll need in our efforts to build strategic industries.

3. Invest in Livability For All.

True livability is achieved when everyone in our community can access opportunity. It’s about moving people: both literally through the city and to the business of their lives, and figuratively through life stages and economic opportunities.

We must immediately pursue a housing strategy that increases inventory and protects pricing diversity in every neighborhood. Through a variety of tactics – like new accessory dwelling unit ordinances, licensing of short-term vacation rentals, protection of existing affordable communities (like mobile home parks), increased investment in a housing land bank, and people-scaled density appropriate to our neighborhoods – we can swiftly begin to move the housing needle.

And running through all these neighborhoods must be access to robust, valley-wide transit and low-stress pathways, so all kinds of folks can get to all kinds of jobs. We’ve got to reset old relationships across the valley and build the kind of coalitions that can move mountains (or just people.)

It’s About Time

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Our rapid growth as a vibrant Western city creates opportunities and challenges. The people of Boise are understandably anxious about our future. But it’s not too late if we take this research, learn from it, and boldly address our looming issues now.

We need fresh perspectives, deeper partnerships across our valley, and forward-thinking leadership to ensure Boise retains its special sense of place, builds opportunity, and truly becomes a city built for everyone, with everyone. Only then will the people of Boise truly thrive, today and for generations to come.

Lauren McLean is the president of the Boise City Council. She is running for mayor in 2019.

Lauren McLean
Lauren McLean is the president of the Boise City Council. She is running for mayor in 2019.

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