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Boise Boomtown: Missing the Bigger Picture

Boise decision makers scratching their heads about how to get more housing.

Boise land use: mostly low density sprawl.

When it comes to meaningful land use reform and better housing outcomes, local government is the best place to effect important change. Unfortunately, it seems that local-level decision makers often just don't get the information they need to make hard decisions about the problems they are trying to solve. Watching Boise talk about how to resolve its high housing prices without really changing its sprawling land-use seems to be a good example of this. As they say: if you do what you've always done, you're going to be where you've always been.

Katie Talerico of the Idaho Statesman recently published an article about Boise's new mayor's attempts to resolve Boise's housing problem, also noting the last mayor's failed attempts to do the same:

As part of her strategy to get housing built at different prices, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean wants to make a deal with developers. She would allow them to build taller and denser apartments outside of downtown in exchange for their promise to offer some of their units at below-market rates....In 2018, as part of the city’s Grow Our Housing plan, former Mayor David Bieter proposed cash incentives for developers. They were intended to promote “workforce housing,” units reserved for people who make no more than 80% of the area median income — $39,400 for a single person and $56,250 for a family of four

Both of these look like decision-makers desperate for solutions but not sure where to begin. The efforts of the previous mayor are especially fascinating to me because despite housing being a billion (maybe trillion?) dollar industry representing 15-18% of the national economy and a booming market in Boise, the City was seriously considering paying developers with public money to build housing for what is not even the lowest half of the market. Taking the 80% AMI numbers from the article, a single person should be paying no more than $985 a month for housing, while a family of four should be paying no more than $1,406. A one-bedroom is currently renting for $1,345 a month. That's a lot, but I can't imagine there are that many apartments in the City.

Is it really possible that no one in Boise can cobble together some housing that they would rent to an individual or a family for between $985-$1,406 per month? I'm guessing that even with high construction costs, people probably could produce units to rent at these prices, if the regulations made it easy to do so--but they don't, so builders focus on the higher sectors of the market where the trade offs between zoning hassles and getting higher income tenants are much easier to deal with. Most of Boise is low density sprawl, so if you can find a place where higher density housing is allowed, it makes sense to make the most of whatever high density zoning you find and try to attract the richest tenants you can.

Boise from the west

But at least the City moved away from the bizarre idea of trying to pay business people (developers) to produce the things that they already make money producing. However, I'm not sure the latest approach is that much better:

McLean has steered the council toward a different incentive structure. Rather than offering cash incentives, she suggests that the city give developers bonuses in density or height, or require fewer parking spaces, in return for offering some units that would rent to those making 80% to 100% of the area median income.

The details aren’t yet nailed down, but McLean hopes the incentives would help Boise hit its goal of building 300 affordable rental units a year citywide.

Take parking. In theory, reducing the number of required parking spaces makes building cheaper. Surface parking lots can cost $10,000 per space, and parking garages can cost $35,000 a space. If Lynch hadn’t built the parking lot in the Fowler downtown, he said, he would have saved $3 million.“But people still drive cars in Boise,” Lynch said. “It makes it hard to lease a unit to somebody if you don’t provide sufficient parking.” Any incentive tied to parking minimums would need to come with a greater investment in public transportation, he said.

300 units per year is about 30% of their Boise's yearly predicted need, and that seems like a pretty reasonable goal. But I doubt the "incentives" outlined above will be that successful for the following reasons:

  1. The "bonus" in density/height is being sold as some sort of gift from the City, when really it is just the reduction of an existing penalty. Most density/height requirements are not objective or fact-based in the first place, but rather based on what "feels right" or what people thought was appropriate for undefinable terms like "light and air", "neighborhood character" or "appropriate scale" (all terms that are mostly undefinable). It's true there are some needs for setbacks and height rules in relation to fire safety, but these are addressed in building codes; most zoning codes today simply protect homeowners' delicate sensibilities. So, the City offering "incentives" by reducing the regulations it basically made up is sort of like an extortionist taking less out of your pocket if you do them a favor first. The best way to resolve the problem would be to simply get rid of all the arbitrary the density and height requirements altogether everywhere. This would both introduce more flexibility in building and reduce a lot of the bureaucracy that goes into approving and tracking these "bonuses".

  2. The "bonus" of reducing parking minimums is also just the reduction of an existing (baseless) penalty. Parking minimums have zero objective basis, and are even less defensible than restrictions on height and density, so "reducing" them as an incentive is again like kindly "reducing" the amount of money you steal from an old lady on the street. It would make the most sense to simply eliminate them altogether, and let developers decide how much of that cost they want to add on their own. Talerico's article mentions that a single parking space can cost between $10,000-$35,000--allow the option of removing that cost, and over time people will.

  3. "We can't reduce parking until we get better transit". This old trope that people will either only exclusively drive OR only exclusively ride a public transit system completely ignores the fact that there is a whole range of modes of transportation on the spectrum between single occupancy vehicles and built-out public transit networks. Most of these require no additional public investment at all. Alternative modes might be walking, carpooling, uber, vanpooling, biking, heck, even using whatever pitiful transit might already be available. When a habitual driver's car is in the shop, does their life come to a halt? Of course not; they simply adapt for a few days into whatever is available. If you reduce parking, people just make different decisions--if no parking means 10-20% less in rent cost, some people will take it, and some people won't, and either group will make their transportation decisions accordingly. Over time, increasing numbers of people allowed to make this choice will shift things even further. So, while more transit is nice, it isn't a requirement for reducing parking. And the existence of transit doesn't make driving not convenient.

What the Boise mayor (and likely the larger discussion city-wide) seems to be missing here how the overall nature of the City's land use might be contributing to the problem. Boise is laid-out over a huge area in an extremely inefficient way, it doesn't take an expert to see that this is a pretty inefficient use of resources. If you can get past their frustrating map scale, the Boising zoning map shows how much of the land is reserved for low-density sprawl (yellow and orange). Or just look at google maps; the downtown is textbook example of wasteful land use, with massive amounts of space devoted to housing cars:

Even the parts of the city designated as "compact" on the land use map in their comprehensive plan would not be called compact in any place except the western US--see this neighborhood below:

The situation is the same with the areas labeled "high density" --only in the context of sprawl would the below be considered even remotely dense:

Sprawl is expensive, and Boise is probably addicted to it---so addicted that people probably doesn't even see it as a major problem. If the neighborhoods above are what people think of as "compact" and "high density", no wonder they can't figure out their housing troubles--the density they actually need to push prices is down is probably inconceivable for the people who are supposed to be thinking about it (look at the City's "Grow our Housing" page. Their idea of positive reform is to increase density allowances in some residential zones from 8-10 units per acre, or 14-20 units per acre. As an improvement, this is barely even noticeable). If the City is serious about housing affordability, the "high density" picture above should be allowable by default in the lowest zoning category, not just permissible in the highest.

US Census Data On Boise Housing Units

Looking at Boise's housing stock, it looks like the City saw a lot of units built in the 1970s-1990s. I bet the majority of these were low density single-unit homes built many at a time. I would also bet that the people living in these homes now would not want someone to build similar numbers of the same types of homes in the open space areas surrounding Boise today. It was fine for them to sprawl and get cheap housing built out, but not for anyone after them to do the same. But, if any of those folks are actually concerned about increasing housing in the area, they should be onboard for more infill or building up, right? Well, obviously not:

“Whenever we go for higher density, then who’s the first to complain?” Wali said. “Every neighbor in the area.”

Zillow data on Boise housing prices since 2011

Incumbent homevoters hate new housing because they perceive it as a threat to their comfort and more importantly, their bottom line. While the mere existence of new buildings doesn't reduce property values, large amounts of new supply do threaten to reduce the amount people can ask for when cashing out of their artificially scarce market. Most zoning today, especially the parts which impose setbacks, parking requirements, lot-width minimums, height restrictions, and whatever else are a way to ensure that supply remains artificially limited. People say they want "affordable" housing, but what they actually want is a single family home that they can afford, but will then skyrocket in value so that they can cash out when they are ready to sell/move or retire. Exclusionary zoning is, then, really just a form of value insurance. Look at Boise house prices over the last 10 years: people lucky enough to get in on it even a decade ago have seen some tremendous gains, and so it shouldn't surprise anyone that they might do whatever they can to protect that. The most "affordable" housing is houses in dead cities, apartments built 30 years ago, old houses subdivided for lodgers, and mobile homes--all the stuff that the homevoters are going to do everything in their power can to prevent.

If Boise is serious about housing, rather than focus on a range of "incentives", they should start by removing disincentives, specifically everything in their code that encourages expensive low density, car-centered sprawl. Even if it was allowed in Idaho, inclusionary zoning wouldn't work (exclusionary zoning is never really effective unless it is applied in a universal manner). But removing these disincentives would require a reassessment of community values, and this would force the City to face how badly it wants to remain sprawling suburbia and whether Boiseans are willing to pay the price to sustain that. Ultimately, it will reveal the real issue playing out in cities across the country: no one really wants to address housing affordability if it means a departure from low density suburbia as a wealth-building commodity. People wring their hands about LIHTC, state tax credits, tax abatements, X% AMI, or whatever--mostly things that never even touch the structural components of the housing problem. To get housing to be affordable, the first thing we need is lots more housing. As long as we rely on the private market to produce most of our housing units, the best we can do is make it as easy as possible for people to build. I'm sure the Boise mayor does really want to do something, but it's hard to tell how far she would be willing to go to do something that will actually make a difference.

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