Despite the drizzling rain outside, dozens of voters filled the pews on Friday night at Discovery Church on the Boise Bench to hear from the four candidates hoping to win their votes to represent District 5 on the Boise City Council.
Incumbent City Council Member Holli Woodings, Steve Madden, Crispin Gravatt, and Katie Fite spent the hour and a half forum answering questions from residents on housing affordability, the zoning code rewrite, and the proposed wastewater bond up for a vote in November. Only residents in the district can vote for these candidates, which includes the East End, Downtown Boise, the neighborhoods near Boise State University, and a section of the Boise Bench.
Housing, housing, housing
One of the biggest topics of the night was the growing housing crisis in the Treasure Valley and how the city should address it.
Fite was critical of the city’s move to rewrite the zoning code to allow more density in residential zones. She said this would accelerate the demolition of existing affordable housing and increase taxes for everyone in the existing homes surrounding the denser projects the new zoning code would allow. Instead, she said the city should do more negotiating than it does already with developers to require affordable units before a project is approved.
“We need immediate solutions, like the city setting up a forum for home-sharing that makes people more comfortable in having renters live in their home,” she said. “I also think we need to look at tiny homes and non-park land that the city owns across town as potential sites as temporary mobile home communities, tiny homes, and other ways to provide shelter in the immediate future.”
Woodings touted the city’s work on Housing First to help assist families back into homes instead of letting them linger in shelters and its two permanent supportive housing projects for the chronically homeless. But unlike Fite, she said the city’s zoning code rewrite will be a needed update. She says it will put the city’s comprehensive plan that calls for mixed-use development into code and build a set of laws that creates predictable development for homeowners and developers.
“We’ve been underbuilding in Boise for a number of years and now it’s hitting us in the pocketbook,” she said. “It’s driving up the cost of rentals and to buy a home and that’s driving up our taxes because our homeowner’s exemption isn’t indexed to keep up with the cost of living. What it comes down to though we need a variety of housing types in all neighborhoods across the city so folks can walk and use alternative transportation to get where they need to go as well.”
Madden, a constitutional conservative, told the crowd how he moved to Boise recently as a “political, social and economic refugee” from California in recent years. He hopes to pull Boise away from some of the progressive policies he said ruined his community in the Golden State, including high taxes, which impact affordability.
He said you can’t stop people from moving to Idaho, but slowing the growth down will help the city evaluate how to address the problems that come with the population boom.
“We can’t discourage people with money to come here and buy nice homes, but we also can’t have people living in their cars and not have a secure place to live.”
In the long-term, Gravatt said working with the state legislature to address the problem and updating the zoning code to create walkable neighborhoods will help alleviate some of the high demand for housing and the rising prices. But, he said boosting wages will help Boiseans pay their bills and make it by even with the increased cost of living. He pitched his proposal for a city program to provide lower utility bills to businesses that agree to pay their workers a higher wage.
“We can offset small business costs to keep wages competitive while we are upskilling our local workforce to keep up with the rising costs of living here in Boise,” Gravatt said. “At the same time, we need to pursue long-term strategies with building more effective partnerships with legislators.”
Wastewater Bond: Yay or nay?
Candidates were also split down the middle on the city’s proposal for a bond to fund upgrades to the water renewal system.
Madden and Fite opposed the plan. While Madden said taking care of wastewater is an essential city service, he said improvements on a large scale shouldn’t be paid for by residential homeowners.
“We have an aging sewer system and it’s the city’s opportunity to upgrade,” Madden said. “The problem is (the bond) shifts the responsibility to pay for that away from developers onto taxpayers. I want infrastructure to be paid for by the people who bring the most impact to it.”
Fite said she still has lingering questions about the specifics of the city’s decades-long effort to upgrade the system, institute water recycling, and replacing aging assets before she could vote for a bond of this magnitude.
“What do we need to do and how much will it cost to ensure the cleanest possible water is returned? How much of the current sewer upgrade is for the development of one or two new sewer plans that the people now will be paying for? There is a lot of information that needs to be out in front of the public…”
On the other hand, Gravatt and Woodings are in favor. They both served on the city’s Public Works Commission in recent years as the Water Renewal Utility Plan was being developed, with Gravatt still in place as its chairman. He said the project will keep industrial wastewater away from the residential supply and get the city ready for more extreme drought.
“Our updated water policies are an investment in our resiliency against climate change and investment so that industrial polluters are not entering into our residential water systems and it’s an opportunity to extend the payment of our aging assets so growth pays for itself,” he said. “It’s a really, really good project.
Woodings said the bond will help ensure that the costs of the upgrade will be spread across taxpayers for a ten-year period, ensuring that newcomers to Boise and businesses that want to relocate here will pay for the new system instead of leaving it to all of the current residents.
“We have an aging system and we need to upgrade our facilities to keep up with environmental standards and expectations on the water we discharge in our city,” she said. “We have higher standards and we need to pay for them, but let’s not pay for them right this second. Let’s go ahead and use the bonding tool to ensure future generations pay their fair share.”