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Tiny homes? Home sharing? Boise tests new affordable housing concepts

Last week, a corner of Terry Day Park along Federal Way buzzed with activity.

It wasn’t for a children’s birthday party, a soccer game or some other event. The dozens of attendees gathered around to tour a tiny home on wheels to talk about the potential future of housing in Boise.

Visitors popped in and out of the blue home, only a few hundred square feet, discussing its amenities, filled out surveys on housing options and talked about the housing crisis.

[Study: Boise rents went up faster than anywhere in the US in the past year]

The event was part of the City of Boise’s work to explore three new programs to find more housing options for low-income Boiseans as prices continue to rise. This push for new solutions stems from the city’s participation in the Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership Initiative Innovation program, which convened a panel of city employees across departments to work with experts and come up with creative policies to address the housing crisis.

Thinking outside the box

Over the next few months, city staff will study three of the ideas pitched by the panel and if they are promising, work to launch them in Boise. The concepts under study include approving tiny homes on wheels in the city, incentives for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units to rent at affordable rates and a home-sharing platform to connect renters in need with Boiseans with extra rooms in their home.

Kyle Patterson, Boise’s data analyst, said these ideas came from city staff, as well as interviews with dozens of community members from various incomes and backgrounds. After the idea-gathering phase, the city pulled these three concepts together and is now set to test them on a small scale with low-cost prototypes.

“It’s touching everybody’s lives and people really want to be part of the solution,” he said. “We were really looking for things that are a win-win for renters and homeowners as well. We’re asking you to help your community and with all of these you can get rental income, you can add equity to your home and build community to where you live.”

More ways to live tiny

The tiny home had a ton of fans.

By and large, attendees were impressed with the number of amenities that could fit in such a small package. But, what was most attractive was the idea of a home that could easily go in someone’s backyard but still be easily moved, unlike a mobile home that costs $15,000 to relocate.

One attendee, Dustin Daher, came to check it out and put his two cents in, hoping it would help the city spur approval of the tiny homes. He is hoping to purchase a property himself and develop it with tiny homes on the edge of Boise to provide more housing options that won’t, but he doesn’t want to move ahead if officials aren’t behind the concept.

“It’s nicer than RVs and it’s a lot more appealing to the neighborhood, rather than have more RV parks,” Daher said. “This kind of helps on both ends because we’re not going to create future problems with future trailer parks, it will preserve the rural nature of the properties and relieve some of the pressure on the market.”

[Boise rent prices continue to increase faster than anywhere else in the US]

Patterson said these tiny homes sell for between $50,000 and $75,000, which is attainable for a renter to purchase. But, the problem is that the renter would need a place to park the home. The idea the city is studying would allow these homes within city limits, so homeowners could rent space on their property to the home owner or own one themselves and rent it out on a more traditional basis.

They would have utility hookups and be subject to city design standards, but it would allow the lower-income person to own their own home and build equity without the high price point.

Deborah Mullner, who attended Tuesday’s open house, said she liked the concept and would be interested in hosting one at her home for someone to live in. Still, she wanted to see an even lower-cost model available without as many bells and whistles.

“We need something where people can buy a shell and work on it themselves to save money,” she said, studying the crisp exterior of the home. “It can’t all be super expensive. It needs to be affordable for young families.”

An easier path to an ADU

Boise ADUs
An ADU in the North End. Tami Springer and her husband built it to add more space to their small North End home and to rent out on a limited basis. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

The city is also considering making it easier to build accessory dwelling units.

Right now, ADUs, or mother-in-law cottages, are easier to build in Boise than before after the city loosened regulations on them in 2019. Since then, the city saw an uptick in applications to install them, as BoiseDev reported, but they are still expensive to build and working with the city’s permitting process can be intimidating.

Patterson said the city is considering a number of different incentives to ease the process for homeowners who are interested in an ADU renting to Boiseans making less than 80% of the area median income. This could include a staff person to walk someone through the permitting process, low-cost financing options or support with finding tenants for first-time landlords.

Other cities have had success with free designs for ADUs paid for by the city that are available to homeowners, instead of requiring them to get their own custom drawings from an architect.

[ADUs gaining popularity in Boise since regulations relaxed last year]

To test these ideas, Patterson said the city has created a Choose Your Own Adventure-style guide to the ADU process and potential incentives gage their reactions to the program, their needs and what they are looking for from the city.

“This round we’ve created…early draft versions of what a website would look like for an ADU program, what rent you might rent it out for and we sit with somebody and they walk through it,” He said. “We’ll ask them to speak aloud about what they’re thinking. It’s really about getting deep feedback and having one on one conversations about what folks are thinking.”

Craiglist, rebooted

The third option is a city-backed home-sharing website to help renters in need find a homeowner they can rent from in the city.

Under this concept, the city would set up a website where potential renters can browse listings from Boiseans with extra rooms in their house, like seniors, empty nesters or young single homeowners. This can help facilitate trades like lower rent in exchange for yard work or other help around the house, or other community-based living for people with shared interests.

The city is considering a feature where potential renters can pay once for a background check for multiple applications to make it more friendly for renters. Boise’s Innovation and Performance Coordinator Eli Griffin said this site also provides a greater degree of safety for low-income renters, who may be nervous about searching for a landlord on anonymous platforms.

“Craigslist isn’t the most trustworthy app,” Griffin said. “You don’t know who you’re talking to and a lot of people who are dealing with housing instability they’re often from marginalized communities and they need a safety net, a source they can trust. Having a platform that does these background checks and says these people are who they say they are is really important because it is this safety net.”

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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