Not ‘enough of an impact’: Simison skeptical of using city funds for affordable housing

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Meridian Mayor Robert Simison said this week he isn’t to the point where he feels comfortable with investing dollars in affordable housing.

He made his comments during a budget workshop where council members discussed spending money on affordable housing, particularly for Jesse Tree, an organization that provides eviction and rental assistance.

There is very little affordable housing in Meridian or in Ada County. For example, around 40 Meridian families apply for help from Jesse Tree every month. To sustain their services, Executive Director Ali Rabe came to Meridian to ask for local money ahead of a federal grant running out.

“The price of food has gone up. We don’t support the Meridian Food Bank with general fund dollars,” Simison said. “I would argue food insecurity is as big if not bigger. How many days can you go without food and water compared to housing? I don’t want to get into that debate.”

Differing approaches

Treasure Valley Mayors
Mayor Trevor Chadwick, Mayor Debbie Kling, Mayor Robert Simison, Mayor Lauren McLean. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Though Simison, a homeowner, later said in the meeting he would be more comfortable in the short-term using American Rescue Plan Act funds, his statement differed from mayors in nearby cities.

In Boise, Mayor Lauren McLean has gone out of her way to recognize the importance of affordable housing and commit city resources and federal funding to the issue. And in Nampa, Mayor Debbie Kling emphasized the need for “attainable housing” in her last state of the city.

Meanwhile, Simison said in his most recent state of the city that Meridian was exploring what the appropriate role and responsibility of local government is when it comes to affordable housing.

In a Thursday phone interview, Simison said the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits cities from spending money on things unless the city determines that it is the city’s responsibility. However, the City of Boise spends money on affordable housing, and when asked about that, Simison said he would have to look at what is right for Meridian.

When it comes to Jesse Tree, Simison questioned whether providing help to families through the organization would lower the overall cost of housing.

“I don’t think that we’re talking about enough of an impact,” Simison said. “At the end of the day, we are limited. We don’t control land prices, we don’t control the labor market or the cost of materials… We are limited as a city about how we can impact the overall affordability.”

However, the city can control zoning codes and where housing gets built. Simison said that’s part of the conversation.

Simison said he was concerned about how the next generation of Meridian homebuyers would get into the market. He said he has advocated for more condominium-style development to help people buy and build equity starting at a lower home price.

When asked if he had concerns about renters, Simison said the city has a lot more rental opportunities than before.

“I know the community is concerned about the amount of multifamily,” Simison said. “Ultimately, it’s trying to find a good ratio and balance of multifamily and single-family in a community in the right places.”

Different cities, different approaches

Mayors respond to many different pressures and interests, said Stephanie Witt, professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University. For example, Boise has a higher homeless visibility.

“It could be that the city of Meridian is not feeling the pressure of people who are currently houseless, the same way that the City of Boise is,” Witt said.

So what is the extent of the issue in Meridian?

If the city wasn’t able to provide funds, Rabe said Meridian residents would not be served. She said she would anticipate higher levels of evictions and homelessness.

“We would anticipate still receiving 40 to 50, even more applications per month as the cost of rent increases,” Rabe said. “We would have to turn away a majority of those folks instead of being able to support 10 to 15 at our current levels.”

Meridian City Councilmember Liz Strader last year acknowledged the city had a shortage of housing.

“Addressing the housing crisis is a many-legged stool. Jesse Tree is the only agency in the Treasure Valley that’s focused on eviction and homelessness prevention,” Rabe said. “So if that’s one part of the stool you decide to fund, we are the best partner in that. Many other needs are out there as well.”

At the budget hearing, the councilmembers ultimately decided to lower the budget ask from $500,000 to $250,000 but the process is far from over and the number is far from final.

After Simison made his remarks, Strader pushed back somewhat on the idea. She said there would be an impact to Meridian families should the city not fund Jesse Tree.

“Meridian doesn’t have a homeless shelter, right, we don’t have a domestic violence shelter,” Strader said. “A piece of this to me is that the money toward prevention goes a long way toward preventing us spending more money on a growing problem.”

Moving forward

In an email prior to the meeting, Councilmember Jessica Perreault outlined several steps of the city’s consideration of an affordable housing program.

The first step is philosophical. “Is housing a basic human right?… Should the city play a role in filling that need?” she wrote. “Why or why not?” The goal, she wrote, is to have these answers by the end of summer.

In 1948, the U.S. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing.

The next step is preparation: If the city should play a role, how big should that role be? Should the city focus on long-term commitments or individual contributions each year? Should the city budget staff time? Perreault’s goal is to have a plan by mid-fall.

Third, Perreault said officials should focus on policies. In this step, the legal and planning departments can guide the council through the details of structuring a program, she wrote. Her goal is to have a draft of policies by the end of the year.

The fourth point is planning — which Perreault wrote is dependent on how the program and spending will be structured. Her goal is to have program guidelines by the end of quarter one in 2023.

Finally, the fifth point is the programming — specifics of how everything would be implemented, which ideally, she said, would be ready by May 2023.

During the workshop, Councilmember Luke Cavener praised Jesse Tree as a “great organization with a strong track record.”

“My issue is not with the dollar amount or with the agency receiving it,” Cavener said. “I feel that an allocation like this is just a skosh premature … I would really like our council to formalize what our approach to housing is going to be between now and the public hearing on this.”

Carolyn Komatsoulis - Idaho Press
Carolyn Komatsoulis - Idaho Presshttps://idahopress.com/
Carolyn Komatsoulis covers Meridian and Ada County for Idaho Press. Contact her at 208-465-8107 and follow her on Twitter @CKomatsoulis.

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