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Experts advise Boise on affordable housing crunch: do more now, before the problem gets worse


Affordable housing is at the top of the list of Boise’s most pressing issues, and city officials decided to call in some outside experts for advice. 

The City of Boise partnered with the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing to bring in a panel of experts both locally and across the country to study the city’s affordable housing strategy and suggest other strategies the city could use to combat the growing crisis. The group of more than a dozen housing experts pitched Boise a range of ideas on how to add more tools to its arsenal and sharpen the ones the city already uses in a virtual panel on Wednesday afternoon. 

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This panel is similar to the process Ada County went through where a panel evaluated the Expo Idaho site and proposed concepts for how to develop it last year. Both processes included interviews with dozens of community members. 

Boise State University’s Idaho Policy Institute Interim Director Vanessa Fry kicked off the panel by saying Boise is at a crucial decision point for how it will handle the growth boom and the affordable shortage that comes with it. She said if the city, and the Treasure Valley as a whole, doesn’t take a proactive step toward planning for growth it will result in a series of mounting difficulties. 

“If we don’t make a policy choice and we take a chance and see what happens, we are going to fall behind,” she said. 

She said a lack of planning on growth, and housing by extension, will result in sprawling development eating up treasured open space and make it more difficult to respond to the pressures of climate change. And as housing becomes increasingly unaffordable, it will hurt businesses’ ability to recruit workers and slow economic growth. 

Boise is off to a good start, but more is needed

Panelists were impressed with Boise’s range of housing initiatives it started up in recent years, but they said the city needs to kick its programs into high gear to address the situation. 

Former King County Housing Authority Director Stephen Norman said Boise’s housing strategy is strong because it includes a mix of strategies to address needs for all types of housing in the market. Boise is both trying to make it easier for developers to build more housing units by lessening caps on density, while also subsidizing projects for low-income Bosieans the private sector wouldn’t otherwise build. 

“One of the strengths you have in the housing plan is it understands is there is an array of different needs and sometimes the challenge for government is to get out of the way, but also recognizing that you have problems the private sector will not respond to and those are the areas government has to step in,” he said. 

But, there’s more to do. Norman said the city should continue to build more permanent supportive housing units to house homeless people with wraparound services. To help get more funding, he suggested advocating harder with the state to get waivers to use Medicaid funding toward these projects. He said the stronger the city can build the pipeline between people entering the social service system looking for housing with units and services to back them up, the better. 

He also heavily encouraged Boise to keep moving toward investing in preserving existing affordable housing units, like apartment complexes aging out of their period of government subsidies or mobile home parks at risk for redevelopment. Between 2015 and 2020, Boise lost 8,300 units of renting at affordable rates to redevelopment or rent hikes, ULI estimates. 

Adding density is another piece of the puzzle. Norman said the city should look at allowing more dense development along transit corridors marked commercial now to add more people to the city, while still being mindful of keeping existing neighborhoods whole. 

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What were the specific suggestions?

Panelists had a range of suggestions, both in the long and short terms, for Boise to step up its affordable housing game. 

Sean Garretson, a nonprofit affordable housing developer in Austin, said Boise should increase the bonus given to developers for building affordable units and create programs to waive any fees and permits for the construction of affordable units. He recommended creating an ombudsmen position to help shepherd affordable housing projects through the application process and expedite permitting. Garretson also suggested heavily reducing or eliminating any site development standards in exchange for “deep affordability.”

He pointed to a five-story project he recently completed in Austin with 53 condominiums for purchase, 40 of which were sold at affordable rates. The project didn’t include any parking aside from two ADA spaces for the first floor retail, but each condo came with an electric bicycle, two cars for residents to use in a sharing service and it was built on a transit line. 

“This affordable housing ordinance is allowing our nonprofit to build larger and create more affordable units than before,” he said. 

A list of short, medium and long-term projects to tackle affordable housing in Boise. Courtesy of ULI

Jill Ferrari, the Chair of ULI Michigan, said Boise is also leaving a lot of opportunities for affordable housing financing on the table. She encouraged Boise to use American Rescue Plan Act relief funds to help start the foundation of a local fund to provide financing for affordable housing projects, specifically using a form of low-income housing tax credits that aren’t competitive but have a slightly lower return. 

Ferrari also said Boise should look to the federal government’s New Market Tax Credit Program, which is focused on developing markets in food deserts, to build retail stores with affordable housing on the upper floors. She also suggested the city explore using loans through the federal government’s Community Development Block Grant program to finance housing construction. 

Plus, she pointed to the success of loan funds powered by the private sector, companies like Microsoft and Amazon, looking to address a shortage of workers in other cities as a possible solution for Boise.

“We highly recommend the establishment of an employer-led social impact fund to encourage the private sector to incentivize middle-income housing with both preservation and new construction,” she said. 

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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