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P&Z gives a thumbs up to housing bonus ordinance, with a caveat

Boise’s Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously recommended approval for a controversial housing bonus ordinance to try and encourage affordable rental units, but with some conditions.

The ordinance, if approved, would incentivize developers to build affordable housing, preserve existing buildings, and plan developments near “activity centers” with shops, jobs and other services. In exchange for meeting certain requirements, the city is considering giving developers a bonus of streamlining the approval process for some projects, reducing parking requirements, or allowing taller buildings.

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This proposal is scaled back from what was originally proposed. Before, the proposal would have allowed administrative approval, instead of a series of public hearings, for projects less than 50 units taking advantage of the bonus in all zones. Now, it’s half of that in R3 zones. The city also removed R2 zoning from the affordable housing bonus and removed the possibility of added height in R3.

Circumventing the public process?

The commissioners were on board with the goals of the ordinance, to increase density and encourage developers to add some units comparatively more affordable than the rest of the project at the same time. But, the majority of the members expressed concerns about the possibility of “streamlining” the public approval process. The proposal right now proposes making projects less than 25 units that meet the city’s requirements be approved at the administrative level, instead of by hearings at the P&Z Commission.

Commissioner Jim Bratnober said he was concerned about abuses of the streamlined process and the need to preserve ways for residents to make their voices heard about projects in their neighborhoods.

“This message is for the city council,” he said. “It would be highly unwise to leave that in there. I recognize it’s one of the key points of this, but I don’t think it gets us any closer to the goal of affordable housing, whether it’s in there or not.”

For roughly three hours Monday, Planning & Zoning heard testimony from residents on both sides of the ordinance. Most of the testimony came from people concerned about the removal of required public hearings used as an incentive to encourage developers. The possibility of the ordinance inadvertently encouraging developers to demolish existing affordable housing and build far more expensive units was also a point of contention.

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Some people also took issue with the prices of the “affordable” units. Under the bonus, a developer who meets the proper criteria could have between 10% and 20% of their project priced for Boiseans making between 80% and 100% of the area median income. This is less than $52,375 for a single adult, or a biweekly paycheck of $2,014 before taxes.

In the program, the city would set rents depending on household size according to standards set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For a single adult making less than the area median income, their rent would be $1,309 per month. A family of four making 80% of the area median income, or less than $59,850, would pay $1,496 monthly.

‘A good start’

The ordinance had its fans, as well. Several people testified praising the initiative for encouraging more density in Boise and building more housing along major corridors and activity centers, which have jobs and services in walking distance.

Several people who testified said the city should take it further and expand the housing affordability bonus to all residential zones so it would be more broadly available in all neighborhoods.

Commissioner Chris Blanchard, an affordable housing developer, praised the proposal’s focus on creating more housing and some apartments priced for those at the higher end of the income spectrum who are still struggling with affordability.

He said the City of Boise has a variety of programs to address affordability for people making lower wages, including the city’s affordable housing land trust.

“For right now, what we can do is try to get some housing starts more quickly at market rate,” he said. “That’s something we can easily do and something this proposal can potentially impact.”

Council Member Milt Gillespie also addressed concerns that the city shouldn’t be building dense projects and offering parking reductions until there are significant improvements to public transit. He said building dense now is the only way to make transit viable.

“I think we should go and do something like this now because if we don’t increase the density we’ll never get mass transit,” he said. “It’s not a certain way, but it’s the only way. The alternative is we spread out like Vegas, Phoenix or Salt Lake City and we can’t do it because it’s too expensive per mile.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of units would be approved administratively by the city if projects met the criteria for the bonus. This has been changed to reflect the correct figure of 25 units in R3 zones and 50 in all others.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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