New subdivisions continue to pop up across Meridian to accommodate the city’s booming population. However, not all residents can afford the housing that is available.
According to the U.S. Census, the city’s population grew by more than 42,000 people from 2010 to 2020. Much of the existing and new inventory is priced at the average rates for the market — leaving few options for those looking for affordable housing.
Currently, there are just a handful of choices for affordable housing in Meridian, including Meridian Foothills Apartments, Meridian Park Apartments, and a project from The Housing Company, which was just approved by Meridian City Council last month. Morgan Property Management also offers affordable housing but only on a few units.
City leaders say the cause of the shortage is multi-faceted and cannot be pinned down to a single reason.
What is responsible for the lack of options
Molly Patchin, a social worker with the West Ada School District, says there are certain regulations that make it near impossible for people who need assistance to get housing.
Patchin used one of her clients as an example – a single mother in a domestic violence situation going through a divorce.
“She got approved for an apartment here in Meridian, but then she has to have at least double (a month’s rent for a) deposit or more to get into her place,” Patchin said. “So, she needs over $3,000 to get in. She makes like $25 an hour so she doesn’t (meet) food stamp requirements and other things. So, how can she get enough funds to get into this place?”
Patchin added that she sees these types of scenarios often where a family can afford the rent, but never gets a chance because they are blocked by regulations.
Regulations are one barrier and sky-high prices brought on by the pandemic another. With those factors combined, Patchin says it’s difficult for anyone to afford a place to live.
“Even people that have college degrees, a good-paying job that trying to get their first starter house, or people can’t even go do that because they can’t afford a simple three-bedroom, two-bath house,” she said.
Subsidization & land cost
The cost of land is a huge part of the shortage, according to Meridian city leaders.
City council member Jessica Perreault said she wants to set aside more subsidies for developers in the next city budget.
“… A lot of the public says why doesn’t the development community solve this problem for us? Well, because the cost of ground, the cost of real estate is more expensive than ever. The cost of building anything is more expensive than ever,” Perreault said.
Perreault added that unless developers are subsidized in some way, they would hardly make any money from building affordable housing.
“Are they just supposed to not make a living?” she said.
While the neighboring city of Boise is also strapped for affordable housing, there are much more options in the City of Tress than Meridian. Perreault says that’s partly because Meridian doesn’t own nearly as much land as Boise.
“They have as a city donated land and anything that they can… to create some affordable housing projects,” Perreault said. “In that regard, the City of Meridian doesn’t own nearly as much land as the City of Boise does. We haven’t necessarily identified any situation where we could give up ground like they have done.”
Though what Perreault calls the “biggest issue,” is the criteria used to deem who is eligible and how income limitations are set.
“Measurements are exceptionally low for our current income and housing market,” she said. “They’re just way too low. The federal government hasn’t adjusted them to keep up with the cost of living right across the country.”
Meridian does have incentives to encourage affordable housing development. The city offers grants through its Community Development Block Grant program and has the ability to waive impact fees if the city council deems the project eligible. Although Meridian Planning Division Manager Caleb Hood said he thinks only one developer has taken advantage of exempt impact fees.
While building costs are out of the government’s control, Hood says the city can manage permit costs and place affordable housing permits at the top of the list. However, he believes this will make little difference unless developers are willing to build affordable housing. Hood pointed out that the Housing Company project was the first affordable housing project to come in front of the council for quite some time.
“(It is) stumping me a little bit why we don’t see more people taking advantage of some of the federal programs and grants, tax credits. It is a little interesting why we don’t do more housing, nonprofits, developers, do more.”
Hood says city staff is waiting for more Census data to come in to present to city council. This would give council members a better view of the current economic situation and possibly more leverage in solving Meridian’s affordable housing problem.
High-density development and Accessory Dwelling Units
Perreault spoke of the benefit of encouraging high-density developments- such as Centerville. Centerville is a large subdivision bringing a mix of single and multi-family developments to the city.
“(The Centerville) developer could take that 80 acres and just do all quarter-acre lots right? Within the zoning that they’re in, they could potentially do that. But instead, they’re coming in and they’re giving us a variety of housing types within one project… We have mixed-use housing on our comprehensive plan as a desired way to build,” Perreault said.
Another approach to more affordable housing could be accessory dwelling units on traditional single-family lots, which the city allows for. Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are small units located on the main home’s property, sometimes called mother-in-law suites. While ADUs have taken off in popularity around the country as a solution to the housing crisis, Hood said the city rarely sees applications for these types of units.
Overall, Hood says Meridian needs to engage in further, serious conversations to address what is a growing problem in Meridian.
“Definitely a level of concern,” Hood said about the rising housing costs. “The question is what can and should we do about that? The market is driving so much of this, what is the city’s proper role in addressing this?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said council member Perrault was working to create an affordable housing task force. This is incorrect and has been removed from the story.