Even as it struggles to shelter its rapidly growing population, Idaho built new housing units at a faster pace than all but one other state, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday.
Between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, Idaho was the second fastest-growing state in the nation in terms of housing construction, with an increase of 1.7 percent in the number of single family houses, condominiums, apartments and other units.
Only neighboring Utah — where the number of housing units increased by 2.1 percent in the same period — grew faster. And in the seven years since the last census, Idaho was No. 4 in terms of housing unit growth, as the nation built itself out of the Great Recession. The state’s housing stock grew by 8.1 percent between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2017, according to the new federal data, lagging behind only North Dakota, Utah and Texas.
Such a rapid rate of home construction might come as a surprise to some residents of the Treasure Valley, the Gem State’s most populous region.
This is where a lack of supply pushed the median price of a single family home to record heights this spring before cooling slightly in April. Where a house that sells for less than $200,000 is increasingly a pipe dream. Where rents are high and vacancy rates low. Where it’s hard to have a conversation that doesn’t turn — quickly — to real estate and the relative merits of sprawl versus density.
Where just two days before the Census Bureau released its numbers, Mayor Dave Bieter and the Boise City Council convened a special strategy session to discuss affordable housing and the scant tools that exist in Idaho to help cities spur an increase in this most necessary of commodities. It was the second in a series of council strategy sessions that focus on how to address the need for more housing. Lots more housing.
Underscoring clashing needs, Boise's city government also is planning a series of workshops to focus on the contentious issue of growth in the City of Trees. In announcing that effort earlier this spring, Bieter said “we hope to create a constructive dialogue around dense, compact development and the effects of sprawl.”
Idaho is the fastest growing state in the nation, and in recent months a loud chorus has emerged, lamenting the loss of local landmarks and fighting proposed subdivisions that they say imperil agricultural land and the precious open space that makes this region special.
At an April town hall meeting convened by Bieter and the City Council to allow residents to talk about whatever was on their minds, only three of the 21 who addressed the officials brought up issues unrelated to growth. More than half were troubled by the pace of growth in the city. Two were unabashedly pro-growth. One wanted more open space, another, more affordable housing.
For those, including Bieter, who are proponents of the region’s growth, the census numbers offered a cautious sliver of hope.
Between 2011 and 2015, developers built more new houses, condos and apartments than were needed to shelter the people pouring into the state. The Census Bureau pegs the average household size in Idaho at 2.69 people. (Insert fractional person joke here). Between 2011 and 2012, for example, the state added 11,493 more people. It needed 4,272 houses to shelter them. Developers built 5,948.
However, during the recession, home construction slowed dramatically, even as the population continued to grow. Which means that there is pent-up need that must be met. And in the most recent two years for which statistics are available, population growth outstripped housing growth.
And while “the nation’s housing stock grew by more than 1 million last year, reaching over 137 million units,” the Census Bureau said in a written statement, “… housing unit growth last year remained below 2007 levels in nearly all states.” Only five states managed to climb back to their 2007 housing growth rates, according to the bureau. Idaho was not one of them.
Looking forward, Derick O’Neill, the city’s director of planning and development services, told Bieter and the City Council at the Tuesday housing strategy session that they will only see more people and the need for more housing in years to come.
“In 20 years, we will grow, and these numbers are conservative but it’s a good starting point, 50,000 new residents, 20,000 new households, and 1,000 living units per year,” O’Neill said. “We have really transitioned from a single family dominant housing world to a variety of choices and a lot of different products.”
Still, the planning staff told Bieter and the council on Tuesday that developers have been building below available density levels. Building codes were eased in January to allow for houses with smaller rooms and lower ceilings and to encourage so-called tiny houses in an effort to spur denser construction of more affordable housing.
Such construction is much needed, said city building official Jason Blais, because, “in the last decade, decade and a half, we’ve seen larger homes, not just in Boise, but throughout the country. There’s just not many small and medium single-family dwellings in that 1,100-1,500 square foot range that we used to see.”
Blais said he recently did an analysis of all new single family dwellings built in the city from March 2017 to March 2018. Of the 913 homes built, he said, the average was just shy of 2,200 square feet. His figures included townhouses and so-called accessory dwelling units, which are smaller structures built on the same lots as existing homes.
“If you took those out, I think the square-footage average would be even a little bit higher,” Blais said. “We have a lot of homes that, if you take 600 square feet off that 2,200 square feet, that could reduce the cost by $90,000, $96,000. ... For a 1,600-square-foot home, with that reduction, more people would qualify for a loan and afford to buy a home.”
The Census Bureau’s housing data only included information on the state and county level, rather than cities. Between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, Ada County added 4,598 new housing units, for a growth rate of 2.6 percent. Canyon County added 1,857 units, growing 2.5 percent.
The new census data also included updated population numbers for cities of all sizes. The only Idaho municipality to make the list of 15 fastest-growing enclaves of 50,000 or more was Meridian. Between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, Meridian was the 10th fastest-growing city in America. Its population grew 4.7 percent, adding 4,490 people.
Scot Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth, rues the fact that developers have largely stopped building smaller, affordable homes, instead focusing on “these giant homes on big lots with infrastructure that can handle four to five people in a house.” He worries about the pace of home building evidenced in the new census data — and the location of the state’s newest subdivisions.
“When you think about the land impacts and transportation impacts of that kind of growth in the long term,” Oliver said, “we’ll run out of farmland and any kind of open space. That’s where it really gets tricky.
“We’re building these houses further and further out,” he continued. “People will sit in their car to get back and forth to work. They’ll say, just add another lane of traffic. That doesn’t work.”