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Home Downtown: Event looks at future and challenges of booming downtown housing market

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Presented by Regence BlueShield of Idaho and WaFdBank

Downtown Boise’s skyline is changing faster than ever, bringing with it new opportunities and along with challenges. 

On Thursday afternoon, BoiseDev hosted a panel of housing experts in both the public and private sectors at the Idaho State Museum to talk about what’s on the horizon for the booming downtown housing market, parking questions, and the growing challenges with affordability. Panelists included Mayor Lauren McLean’s Housing Advisor Nicki Olivier Hellenkamp, Alexandra Monjar with Capital City Development Corporation, Shellan Rodriguez with affordable housing firm SMR Development and Katie Vila Roundhouse COO. 

[Boise City Ada County Housing Authority looks for partners on long-dormant affordable housing project]

Affordability remains a tough nut to crack 

Listen to a podcast of the conversation with the player above, by searching BoiseDev on your favorite podcast platform, or here.

Boise’s climbing rent prices, especially downtown, is the talk of the town these days. 

The high demand for housing in Boise as new people move to the area is powering the rent hikes, but escalating construction costs are also a significant factor. Vila, whose company has constructed major downtown Boise housing projects like The Fowler, said it is costing developers more than ever to build each unit. On one project currently in the planning phases, she said it’s costing Roundhouse $410,000 per unit to build, which is more than $100,000 more per unit than it was even a year ago. 

This means there’s almost no way to provide reduced rents unless there is some sort of subsidy. 

“It’s between $80,000 to $100,000 per (affordable) unit is the difference you need to make up to make the project pencil,” Vila said. “When we look at ‘we’re going to designate 10 or 20% of our project to be affordable’ that is a huge hit to the operating cash flow.”

Hellenkamp said creating affordable housing downtown helps create affordability because of the walkable environment and the availability of public transit, but it also builds a strong community because people don’t have to spend hours commuting. This is why the city has directed most of its focus on housing toward subsidizing housing for those making less than 60% of the area median income. This is equivalent to a single adult making $31,680 per year.

“People say ‘if you can’t afford to live close, you have to keep going until you can find the place you can afford,’” Hellenkamp said. “Well yeah, but it bites us in the fact that some folks who would otherwise be able to bike or walk to work are now not only spending money on gas, but spending time in their car instead of in their communities. That cost is one we have to grapple with as we’re looking at what are the opportunities for housing downtown.”

Parking, parking, parking 

Downtown Boise is Idaho’s biggest public transit hub and is meant to be walkable, but cars still abound. How can we accommodate them?

Rodriguez, whose firm won a request for proposals process through CCDC to develop a parcel on Idaho Street in west downtown, said deregulating parking regulations allows developers to experiment and find the best ways to meet the demand of the free market. She said history in Seattle and Portland showed when parking requirements were removed, developers responded and built micro-units and other projects with no parking. And then, they responded again by building units with spaces for cars when renters demanded it. 

“Developers will take risks,” Rodriguez said. “It is what we do…so give us the opportunity to take the risk. We’ll do what we can make money doing and we’ll do what we can to rent units.”

[‘Focusing on people’: Zoning rewrite proposal shrinks parking minimums, lot sizes, adds neighborhood protections]

Shared parking has been the key to several recent downtown housing projects in the past several years. Monjar, who works on coordinating projects in Boise’s urban renewal districts, said CCDC’s publicly owned garages can help provide parking options around town so developers can build a project with no parking. Still, residents don’t have to go without a car. This helps subsidize projects, like Clay Carley’s Thomas Logan affordable housing building on Grove Street, because it means developers don’t have to front the added tens of thousands of dollars in expense per parking space onto their tab. 

“I think the reality of Boise is people have cars and they need to park,” Monjar said. “We are trying to hit that sweet spot of ‘parking is expensive so how much do we need so it will pay for itself’ and the developers ask the same question,” she said.

Looking ahead

Like any city, Boise’s urban core has grown and changed over the decades. 

What started as a simple Western America-style settlement when the first European settlers arrived in the area gave way to single-family homes and shops, then to office buildings where workers commuted in and clocked out at 5 p.m. Now, the area is bursting with mixed-use apartment buildings and more and more high-rises are on the horizon every day. 

It’s impossible to know what the future will hold, but with nearly 4,000 new units in the pipeline for approval in downtown Boise right now, the area is sure to morph and grow into a more dynamic neighborhood as it becomes more than just a place for office workers. 

List of projects

Using data compiled from the BoiseDev Project Tracker, we estimated there are more than 3,500 apartment units in progress in the Downtown area (defined here as the area east-west from Garden City to Broadway Ave. and north-south from State St. to the Boise River).

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
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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