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A BoiseDev Deep Dive

Is Boise like Austin 20 years ago? Lessons from Texas’ capital city provide clues to Boise’s possible future

Above: BoiseDev photo illustration of the Idaho and Texas state capitol buidlings.

Boise’s growth boom is changing the City of Trees like never before and leaving elected officials with an ever-growing list of challenges.

But Idaho’s capital city isn’t alone.

Decades before Boise’s growth (and the housing crisis that came with it) picked up speed, Austin, Texas tread much of the same ground. The Lone Star State’s capital may be 1,600 miles away, but Austin and Boise share many similarities. They’re both blue cities in red states, host a research university, lack a strong public transportation system, and are experiencing rapid growth due to quality of life and a strong economy. 

[The Boise River: nature, development, and water quality shape its future]

Twenty-five years ago Austin’s metro area was the same size as the Treasure Valley is now. Looking at Austin gives Boiseans an idea of what challenges could be in store for our city’s future and how Austinites wish they prepared for their current moment. It’s not perfect, but it allows Idahoans a little glimpse ahead in time.

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Boomtown

Austin is nearly unrecognizable today from how it was in the 1990s.

Twenty-five years ago, Austin was a quirky college town where University of Texas students shared spaces with Texas Legislators a few months every other year. With a burgeoning live music scene boosted by the South By Southwest music festival and a culture that embraced the moniker “Keep Austin Weird,” it was a haven for creative types and a large population of Black and Latino Texans with vibrant neighborhoods.

But now, Texans and other workers from around the country are flooding in to take advantage of all the unique city has to offer. Rents are skyrocketing, and like Boise, homes are flying off the market within hours at thousands above asking price. Some of the biggest companies in the world, like Samsung, Tesla and Apple are setting up shop and small, working-class neighborhood streets are giving way to apartment buildings and high-end brunch spots.

Austin’s metro area had 720,000 people in 1996, compared to 2.11 million estimated in 2021. The population growth kept Austin’s economy running strong, even during hard times like COVID-19, but it also strained longtime residents who are getting priced out of their long-time neighborhoods.

For Austin organizer Carmen Llanes Pulido, watching entire blocks change from working-class Latino neighborhoods she grew up visiting to trendy condos for affluent tech workers is painful.

“That feeling is a feeling of grief,” she said, describing the loss of neighborhoods she loved. “…It’s a physical traumatic feeling of seeing holes in the ground where your physical bearings once were. There was the corner business you know, the neighborhoods you remember and all of a sudden it’s a giant hole and a four story office building and a canyon caused by apartment buildings.”

Different cities, same discussions

A leafy Austin, TX suburb at sunset. Photo: Shutterstock

Boise may be Austin’s little sister city, but both communities are having many of the same conversations.

Both cities are bound by similar rules written by conservative state legislatures around how they can restrict rents or require landlords to build affordable units. Like Boise, Austin is embroiled in a fierce debate over a zoning code rewrite, with community members debating whether the future of the city should be sprawling suburbs or denser development with public transportation.

Steven Pedigo, a professor at University of Texas Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said the city’s weak public transit system hobbled the city’s growth and helped push working-class residents to the outskirts. He said once a city hits 2 million residents and it doesn’t have an efficient transit system, the city’s growth stalls as congestion eats up workers’ time and cuts into what made the city livable in the first place.

“It starts to have implications for economic development, quality of place and quality of life,” Pedigo said. “…It’s not that you or I would ride transit, but without that system what we do is we put more cars on the road. We become a region that is stuck in motion instead of moving ideas, people and goods further.”

Decades of housing policy, racism, and zoning policies have already made Austin into one of the most segregated cities in America, but Pedigo said the lack of public transit is making the problem even more pronounced. Because moving out of the urban core means bumper-to-bumper traffic, he said it drives up the value of land close to downtown further and hastens the displacement of long-running low-income communities of color in East Austin.

After previous attempts to pass a bond to fund transit failed at the ballot box, Austin successfully passed a $7.1 billion measure in November to build a light rail system and expand bus services. This vote meant Austinites decided to tax their property at a higher rate to pay for the project.

But, Idaho does not allow most localities to vote if they would like to dedicate sales tax for transit and there is no dedicated funding from the state to establish a system. Bonds on property taxes are allowed in Idaho, but they cannot be used for public transit systems.

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean set her sights on a federal grant to help establish a bus rapid transit system on State Street, but it’s unknown if the city can score the grant and the particulars of how it will be paid for long term.

Zoning, zoning, zoning

Boise and Austin’s laws governing where development can go are decades old, but updating them is contentious business.

Austin started its process to rewrite its land development code, called CodeNEXT, as far back as 2012 and it’s been controversial ever since. The final version that made its way through the approval process included upzones, especially along well-traveled streets suitable for public transit. The goal was to allow for an additional 135,000 homes in Austin in the next decade.

Upzoning is when a city decides to increase the density allowed in zones around the city. This means a developer can build more homes and taller buildings without going through a public hearing process at Planning & Zoning and City Council.

Over the years-long process to put together the proposal, the city split along fault lines familiar to Boiseans. Urbanists hoped for more upzones through the city to increase density in all neighborhoods in an attempt to bring development to the whiter, single family home neighborhoods in Austin, instead of continuing to displace low-income, communities of color in East Austin.

But some homeowners, particularly in the historic neighborhoods close to the downtown core expressed frustration that the code development would overburden roads and destroy the character of neighborhoods. Other left wing activists joined in opposition, expressing concerns that upzoning would only incentivize developers to keep displacing residents without much affordability in return.

CodeNEXT ruffled so many feathers a group of homeowners filed suit to stop the proposal from going through. It is still caught up in the courts and it’s unclear what the future of the proposal will be.

So, how do you handle the growth?

Downtown Austin, TX. Photo: Shutterstock

Everyone we spoke to in Austin agrees growth brings problems along with the economic opportunity, but there are vastly different opinions on how it should be addressed.

J.P. Connolly is an Austin planning commissioner and on the housing policy team for social justice advocacy group Austin Justice Coalition. He is an ardent supporter of efforts to allow more housing density. He argues decades of housing policy protected more well-off West Austin neighborhoods, similar to Boise’s North End, from development beyond single-family homes, pushing more construction elsewhere and hurting low-income communities.

Connolly says having a more equitable distribution of density will help make room for more Austinites, both those moving in for jobs elsewhere in the country, other parts of Texas, and the children currently growing up in the city.He feels this should be used along with other affordable housing programs, not alone.

“I’ve heard many of the arguments from the folks who hate it and I think those arguments are pretty silly unless you’re thinking from the perspective of ‘I’ve got mine and I’m going to hold onto mine as long as I can,’” he said. “That’s the basic mentality. It doesn’t speak to removing limitations or making life better for folks. It speaks to the preservation of the status quo, which right now always leads to people of color getting displaced.”

Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo was one of the four council members to vote against approving CodeNEXT in December 2019. She said the rewrite proposal is “a very wrongheaded approach” because it tried to address the city’s issues in a top-down way instead of working with neighborhoods. She represents Central Austin, which has many single-family homes close to downtown, similar to Boise’s North End.

Tovo said the code rewrite only incentivized developers to demolish existing single-family neighborhoods in favor of apartments and higher-priced projects instead of preserving what’s already there.

Instead of pushing a “top down” code rewrite to add more density as the city grows, she said the city should be exploring tougher programs requiring developers to build affordable units in exchange for density bonuses. Right now, developers in Austin can choose to build the affordable units or pay into an affordable housing fund. Tovo said they often choose to pay the city instead of meeting the need for more lower cost units.

Tovo also supports building affordable housing on city-owned land, like Boise is currently doing, and finding ways to ensure commercial property is appraised properly to try and stop Austin’s ongoing property tax shift onto residential homeowners. If she could go back to the early days of the boom, Tovo said the city should have purchased existing affordably priced complexes to protect them from redevelopment.

[Explain This to Me: How 2016 legislation shifted property tax burden from commercial land to Idaho homeowners]

“We have a lot of aging multi-family properties, small and large, and as they tend to fall into disrepair they go on the market and you see the redevelopment of that housing into something more luxury priced or doing a minor renovation and converting it from rental housing to much more high priced condominiums,” she said.

What about a new way to approve development?

Pulido, a member of the Austin Planning Commission and organizer working on equity in health access with nonprofit Go Austin/Vamos Austin, is also opposed to CodeNEXT. She says it gives away too much to developers, with little in return. Like Tovo, she wants to see Austin buy apartment complexes and then build more housing, but she’s also hoping for a shakeup of how the city approves density.

To help make sure growth pays for itself, Pulido wants Austin to consider implementing a system where developers can purchase certificates of additional construction potential. Under this system, which has been implemented in Brazil, developers can compensate the city based on what they hope to build on a site, instead of just being given the ability to build with an upzone.

She said looking at a program like this, which she learned about from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, would help the city be better compensated for the cost of infrastructure and capture more of the cost of growth. Pulido said it would help bring density to the city, without over burdening services and displacing neighborhoods.

“During this whole land development code dispute people were talking about NIMBYs and YIMBYs,” she said. “I am a QuIMBY, for ‘quality in my backyard’. It’s not to say we don’t want new development, but we need community planning. As a planner, you don’t plan with code. You create a community plan and you write a code to support it.”

Bring jobs, but preserve what’s special

Barton Creek in Austin. Photo: Shutterstock

It’s all about balance.

Like Boise, Austin built a strong economy because it was a nice place to live, but also due to the range of jobs available to draw in new residents. City leaders, like McLean, City Council President Elaine Clegg and former Mayor Dave Bieter, have all talked up the push to recruit companies to Boise paying living wages throughout the city and in the new southeast Boise industrial park.

[2019: ‘City at a crossroads:’ Brookings says Boise’s prosperity is fleeting, bold action needed]

Austin Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Huffman said intentional recruitment of a range of companies starting in 2004 built the foundation for the city’s success today. The chamber launched Opportunity Austin, which was a volunteer-led and funded initiative from the business community to work to attract companies that would build a city they wanted instead of just going after any and all jobs.

“Opportunity Austin allowed us to think about what the next 20 years were going to look like and think about what our economy is composed of and how we wanted to grow the sectors we wanted to grow,” Huffman said. “I think the key to Opportunity Austin is we’ve grown a diverse economy and that has made us more resilient. That’s why people talk about Austin coming out of downturns if we have a diverse economy.”

It involved growing the health system and opening the medical school at the University of Texas Austin in 2016, investing in the education system to grow a strong workforce and public transit to help the city grow into the future. She also said working regionally, not just inside Austin’s city limits, helped with building a strong city.

But, Huffman said Austin cannot continue to boom unless it maintains the things people love about it in the first place. She encouraged Boise to find ways to grow and keep Boise, Boise in the coming decades.

“I would say take this moment in time to think about what you want to look like 20 years from now and what you want to retain about what makes people want to live in Boise so much and how you invest in those things, not just keep an eye on them but invest in them,” she said. “What does Boise offer that no place else offers?”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. 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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