It was billed as an evening of education, a chance for members of the Cathedral of the Rockies to learn about Boise’s need for affordable housing and what they might accomplish if the church builds on a square block it owns in the Near North End.
Instead, the Thursday meeting turned into a polite but testy interlude filled with angry questions from congregants and neighbors alike. Some wondered whether building affordable homes in one of Boise’s most desirable neighborhoods is “the highest and best use” for the pricey parcel.
Others thought the church should simply sell the property. During this, the third church meeting called this summer to talk about the parcel’s fate, some of the 50 or so people who attended said church officials were not being transparent and were not trustworthy.
“We bought [the land] for the purpose of parking,” said one longtime church member who declined to give his name. “We told everybody that was the reason. I’m not against affordable housing. I just don’t know that that’s the place for it.”
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He was interrupted by applause.
“There’s emotion on one end and on the other end, economics,” said another man, who described himself as a 43-year church member and a former trustee. “I have no doubt how much need there is. But there’s also a need to marshal our asset. ... My plea is that we back up. ... We have an asset, and we should be very careful in how we use that asset.”
The block, variously referred to as Lot 75 or Block 75, is adjacent to the cathedral and bounded by Fort, Hays, 11th and 12th streets. About 15 years ago, it was at the center of a bitter preservation fight. Today it is basically an empty lot that, depending on your point of view, is either a squandered opportunity with a little bit of surface parking or a flourishing community garden doubling as a teaching farm.
Earlier this year, church officials floated the idea of building low-income housing on the property. Such housing is defined by the government as being for residents who make 60 percent or less of the area median income, or AMI. For a family of four, the AMI is about $70,000 a year, said Bart Cochran, president of LEAP Charities, a Boise nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing. Cochran, who spoke at Thursday’s meeting, said that means such a family would earn about $42,000 annually.
Cochran and Erik Kingston, housing resources coordinator for the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, talked about the growing desperation Boise’s poorer residents feel as they try to make ends meet and find places to live in this fast-growing and increasingly expensive city.
Kingston described the ripple effects of spiking housing costs. Every time someone buys an apartment building, he said, “all of a sudden they have carrying costs and raise rents. ... It’s happening in a lot of different places in the country. If you’re identified as a hot market and a great place to live, it’s going to happen.”
In addition, because of construction costs, he said, “new housing will be out of reach for low-income people.” The result, Cochran and Kingston said, is a gap of 80,000 units of affordable housing statewide and a vacancy rate for such rental units of 0.4 percent in Ada County.
“The question of the night is what can the Cathedral of the Rockies do? What’s the opportunity?” Cochran asked. “I believe, and this is just my take, the church is powerfully positioned to make a major impact on affordable housing in the city and to help meet that big deficit.”
But Kate Garvey, who attends the church and hopes to join in coming months, said she worried about who might move into such housing if it were built beside the stately house of worship.
“Even though the church wouldn’t be involved in managing this, there’s a potential for lawsuits,” she said. “There are issues of safety for members of our church who are most vulnerable. ... Having lived next to subsidized housing twice, I experienced a lot of unattended children who caused a lot of issues in our neighborhood.”
Julia Robinson, a co-leader of the church’s Block 75 Mission Team, told the Idaho Statesman after the meeting that officials understand the concerns and have worked to be as open as possible. And, in retrospect, she said, she wishes she had invited someone struggling to afford housing to speak Thursday.
“When you have a house and a job,” she said, “you don’t understand how desperate people can be. ... I don’t think we communicated it enough tonight for folks how desperate people are. If we had, I believe people would open their hearts more.”
Echoes of an old fight
Cathedral officials have a rocky history with preservationists and neighbors in the graceful swath of homes and offices that separates Downtown from Hyde Park and the rest of the North End.
In the early 2000s, the church proposed building Cathedral Place, a massive apartment complex with 176 units and more than 500 underground parking spaces. After protests from the neighborhood, the church altered the project to include just 137 apartments and 417 underground parking spaces. But the Ada County Highway District and the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission both rejected the proposal.
In preparation for development, the church demolished at least three historic houses on the property and had at least four moved to other Boise locations, the last one in 2006. Since then, the block has remained undeveloped, except for the orchard and the teaching farm.
The fight spawned the Hays Street Historic District, which instituted a set of design guidelines and protections for the neighborhood. The district encompasses nearly 22 blocks from the northern half of the original Boise town site. Half of its buildings were built before 1912. But only the Fort Street half of Block 75 is included in the historic district. The section facing Hays Street and the Cathedral itself do not have the same strict guidelines.
Church might not proceed
On Thursday, Robinson sought to calm some of the concern about what church officials would do with the property. She said they hope to circulate a request to developers for letters of interest. Before picking a possible developer, the church wants to know what kind of experience interested developers have, whether they’d ever worked with churches before, what their financial resources are, and how they planned to finance any project they might build.
And, in the end, she said, the decision might be not to build at all.
“We may stop the process at any time,” she told those gathered at the cathedral. “Our timeline is to do it right. The lay council has to decide in October if there’s enough support in the church to send out letters of interest. In the summer there was not. ... We need to have the church be comfortable, or we will not go forward.”