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Boise looks at ideas to incentivize affordable housing in new projects

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In the Treasure Valley’s hot housing market, convincing developers to build affordable housing can be a hard sell. The City of Boise is working on an ordinance to sweeten the deal. 

Earlier this summer, Boise City Council approved consulting firm Clarion Associates to start putting together proposed changes to city code. The concept would incentivize developers to build affordable housing, preserve existing buildings, and plan developments along transit corridors. In exchange for meeting certain requirements, the city is considering streamlining the approval process for some projects, reducing parking requirements, or allowing taller buildings. 

The approach to offer incentives – instead of instituting requirements for it, or implementing rent control – aligns with Idaho State Code. State law places restrictions on how cities can regulate rent. City ordinances that require developers to build affordable units are in murky constitutional territory in Idaho, as well. 

In the early stages of creating a proposed “housing bonus ordinance,” city staff is looking at bonuses depending on what a developer proposes and if it is located in specific zones. Roughly 15% of the city’s parcels would be eligible for the program, according to an analysis by city staff. 

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The city is also proposing protections for neighbors, including height limits of 35 feet when a building getting the bonus is next to single-family homes or duplexes to transition between uses. 

Affordable housing

The city would determine affordable housing rents and income levels based on the area median income and regulations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. To get an affordable housing bonus under this proposal, a project must set aside a certain percentage of units set aside for lower-income residents. The percentages depend on the zone the project is in, and the targeted income level for the units. 

Developers who offer units for residents making 80% of the AMI or below would be responsible for a lower percentage of affordable units than those who opt for the higher price point option of units for 100% of the area median income and below. 

Bonuses would differ depending on the zone. 

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All zones would either get the maximum limit on dwellings per acre or the minimum lot area per unit waived. Except for projects in R-2, all projects given the bonus would be allowed an additional 10 to 20 feet in height. They could earn additional increases to height if the project had existing housing units on-site and 50% or more were being preserved. Projects in zones N-O, C-1, C-2, C-3, and C-4 would be eligible for a 20% parking reduction. 

All projects containing less than 50 units, except those in R-2, could gain approval from city planners, instead of going through the city’s full planning & zoning process.

Transportation

In addition to affordable places to live, the city continues its focus on getting residents out of their cars and onto public transit, walking, or biking.

The second bonus the city is considering would be incentives for developers who construct housing near shopping centers with goods and services within walking distances, which the city calls “activity centers.”

Projects located within an eighth-mile of smaller Community Activity Centers or within a quarter-mile of larger Regional Activity Centers would be eligible for the program. Just like the affordable housing bonus, the incentives depend on the project’s zoning.

All zones would either get the maximum limit on dwellings per acre or the minimum lot area per unit waived and a height increase of ten feet. Additional height would be allowed if the developer was maintaining at least 50% of existing housing units on the site, and all but projects in R-3 and L-O would be eligible for a parking reduction of 10%. 

Just like the affordable housing bonus, projects containing less than 50 units, except those in R-2, would be approved administratively, instead of going through the Planning & Zoning Commission and Boise City Council for the green light. 

In with the old

Boise is also hoping to incentivize developers to keep existing buildings and utilize them for housing instead of tearing them down and sending them to the landfill. 

The third bonus would encourage developers to reuse existing buildings that might not currently serve as housing. This could include redeveloping shopping centers, office buildings or even warehouses in the proper zone into housing. 

Buildings turned into housing in residential zones would earn a 30% parking reduction. Those in commercial zones would not be required to build any additional parking beyond what’s already available. 

Work in progress

This proposal is far from finished. On Tuesday, several city council members had questions about the details of the proposal. The council stopped conversation short due to time constraints.

City Council President Elaine Clegg said she is generally in support of the idea of trying to incentivize developers to build projects to meet the qualifications for the incentives. But, she disagreed with Mayor Lauren McLean’s exact strategy on how to implement the concepts.

Clegg expressed concern that the proposals won’t deliver the outcome the city is looking for. Instead, she proposed an affordability incentive to layer on top of the transportation or existing housing bonuses. This way, developers could opt into the affordable housing bonus to get additional perks – but it wouldn’t be a standalone incentive.

“We’ve created this idea that density should only happen in return for affordability,” Clegg said. “I’m not convinced that’s the right way.”

McLean said she wants to be more aggressive in targeting affordable housing by creating the specific incentive, instead of giving developers the opportunity to build denser, taller projects without the affordable units. She noted that the city continues to hit its goal of 1,000 total new homes – but falls short of the goal of 300 new affordable units.

“I want to make sure we’re not watering down the options so (developers) don’t do what is easiest and not actually get at what we’re chasing, which is achieving 300 affordable units a year that we set out for as a city multiple years ago,” McLean said.

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Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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