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Boise wants affordable housing. Attempts keep falling through and leaders are looking to city-owned properties

Boise’s plans for an affordable housing land trust hit some roadblocks over the past year.

Of the six properties the city tried to purchase for affordable housing development, only one sale went through, according to hundreds of pages of public records obtained by BoiseDev. The rest of the potential sites faced various issues with access, price to develop, and difficulties negotiating with sellers.

These attempts at purchases are part of Mayor Lauren McLean’s hopes to buy land and lease it to developers under the condition they build units specifically for Boiseans making below the area median income. The first property in this affordable housing land trust, which began under former Mayor Dave Bieter, is set to break ground this fall at the corner of Franklin Road and Orchard Street on the Boise Bench.

Former Smoky Davis site comes through

But, it’s been slow going to obtain other properties. Boise’s Senior Housing and Community Development Manager Maureen Brewer said the city struggled to “close deals,” but officials also didn’t want to spend tax dollars on properties that weren’t financially feasible to build on.

She said the city will now turn toward developing housing on properties it already owns instead of buying properties on the open market.

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“Each property is unique and has its own set of unique development challenges,” Brewer said. “That’s what we ran up against on a handful of these for which we submitted a (letter of intent) and went through a due diligence process. Thank goodness for that process because we want to be good stewards of those funds. We want to make sure the investments we’re making in that realm will serve a public good.”

The one successful purchase was the former site of Smoky Davis on State Street for $765,000 in August 2020.

The City of Boise went through a public input process to get feedback on design last year and put out a request for proposals to find developers. The city announced it selected the Pacific Companies to build the project.

An early rendering of the Pacific Companies proposal for affordable housing on State Street. Courtesy City of Boise

It will include a minimum of 35 units for residents ranging between 30% of the area median income and 100%, with the majority of the units being for 60% of AMI and below. Exact unit mixes and bedroom counts are not yet available. The project will utilize the Housing Bonus Ordinance to get the maximum amount of units on the site.

Mayor Lauren McLean lauded the design in a press release.

“We are at a critical moment in time,” McLean said. “Housing affordability is top of mind for so many Boise residents, at every age, income level, and demographic. As a city, we are working hard to identify and maximize opportunities to relieve as much of the very real pressure our residents are feeling around housing. The land at State and Arthur will allow us to do just that – develop housing at affordable rates for many of our community members.”

Too high of a cost for too little return

An office building on 23rd Street in west downtown looked promising, but the costs to redevelop the project were prohibitive.

City officials put in an offer to buy a 5,200 square foot office building for $799,000 in February and started a 90 day due diligence period to check out the property, according to public records. City staff hired architecture firm Trout Architects to evaluate the property and come up with a feasibility study for $11,000 to see what it would take to build 10 to 12 housing units on the property.

The study came in showing it would cost a developer roughly $700,000 to construct nine units on the property on top of the purchase price, emails obtained by BoiseDev showed. Shortly after, staff filed paperwork with the seller to pull out of the purchase, and the $15,000 deposit on the property was returned to the City of Boise.

Access concerns ended the city’s push to buy two parcels along State Street north of the Collister intersection.

The two properties, 5102 W State Street and 5122 W State Street, were on the city’s radar to buy in June 2020. They were listed for sale at $1.3 million, but the city was able to offer to buy them at $596,000 from owners Rinaldo, LLC, according to public records.

A survey of two of the parcels the City of Boise initially looked at for affordable housing development. The project was scrapped due to lack of access onto State Street and other costs. Courtesy of the City of Boise

But, like the others, the sale was not to be when they could not negotiate for an access easement to the property through a narrow strip of land along Marketplace Lane. That, and the cost to develop and requirements to tile a canal on-site, forced the city to walk away and not purchase the land in September 2020. The $10,000 deposit on the property was returned to the city.

Another developer got approval from the city to build a 36-unit apartment complex on the site in February 2019

City faced tough requirements at Hillcrest

Another property the city missed out on was the site of a now-demolished Fred Meyer in the Hillcrest Shopping Center.

In October, the Boise City Council gave the go-ahead to spend $2.475 million on four undeveloped parcels in the shopping center to build affordable housing through another public-private partnership in the land trust.

Scott Edwards Architecture evaluated and scoped out the possibility of two 27,500 square foot buildings with 215 units and 351 parking spaces using the existing lot.

But, the city had to ultimately walk away from that site at the end of 2020 after discussions with RTA Hillcrest, LLC and FPA Shoppes at Hillcrest, LLC due to strict requirements to build on the site, like a height cap of 31 feet and cost to build, according to emails obtained by BoiseDev.

In January, city staff sent the sellers a list of demands to try and revive the talks, including the shopping center allowing a four-story multi-family residential building with a minimum of 175 units and designated parking in the underutilized shopping center for parking.

The letter also asked for the sellers to “fully cooperate” with the City of Boise and “advocate” for anchor tenant Albertsons to allow the project. Albertsons’ spokesperson Kathy Holland said the grocery chain never saw a final proposal.

“Albertsons did not oppose the project in the Hillcrest Shopping Center,” she wrote. “We had a meeting with the city, and they were going to get back to us with a concept plan, but never did. We later found out that the city decided not to proceed with the project.”

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A memo provided to Boise City Council in December 2020 obtained by BoiseDev also said the shopping center owners were pushing for the City of Boise to cover increases in property taxes due to the development of the site. That and the other factors listed above presented “multiple concerns/unknowns” for development and long-term site ownership.

These talks were not successful, and the city finally walked away from the deal in February 2021, the emails showed. The city’s deposit on the property was returned. This site was also approved for a 108-unit apartment building with six apartment buildings and a clubhouse by a private developer in 2014, according to public records, but it never materialized.

The city didn’t even get that far for two other properties, one at 1310 North Orchard and another at 787 Parkcenter Boulevard. The sellers did not accept their inquiries about purchasing the properties.

So, what’s next?

The City of Boise isn’t quitting on affordable housing development, despite these setbacks.

Brewer said the city is now turning its focus toward the properties it already owns, seeing which are the most appropriate for housing and putting together a plan to develop them to meet the city’s goals for adding affordable units. She said the biggest focus is on units for extremely low-income Boiseans, a need the private market is not filling on its own.

“Given the unprecedented market we find ourselves in, the city is still very much committed to a home for everyone,” Brewer said. “We have been evaluating our city-owned parcels to see which of those and to evaluate which of those makes sense or could make sense for affordable housing projects.”

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To do this evaluation, the City of Boise hired affordable housing consultant Shellan Rodgriguez, a former staffer for urban renewal agency Capital City Development Corporation. In a draft of her report from April obtained by BoiseDev, Rodriguez suggested four pieces of city property best suited to multi-family development. These are only suggestions from a consultant and do not reflect concrete plans for projects at this time.

This includes a two-acre site near Liberty Park, nearly 5 acres at 1149 East Lewis Street near Kristin Armstrong Park, 4.6 acres to the west of Borah High School, and a portion of the 63 acre Pearl Jensen park site on Lake Hazel Road in Southwest Boise.

These sites are large enough to accommodate a high number of units, could be in play for federal low-income housing tax credits, and nearly all of them meet the city’s goal of infill development. But, Rodriguez noted they all require a rezone, all but the Morris Hill site are “politically challenging,” and the site on Lewis Street could have potential “use/title issues.”

The Pearl Jensen site also lies well outside of the city’s limits and would be mired in much of the same opposition facing McLean’s vision for housing on the Murgoitio park site.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of one of the parcels. It has been corrected to reflect that the land is near Liberty Park.

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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