Mayor David Bieter used his yearly State of the City speech Wednesday to outline his vision for keeping housing affordable in Boise without overdeveloping one of its most treasured assets, the Foothills.
Bieter proposed new steps to encourage construction of affordable homes on the same day the median price of an Ada County house set yet another record: $334,000, up 20 percent in one year. And he proposed sharp curbs on new, high-end homes in the Foothills to protect their beauty.
He spoke about young families who want to buy houses but are worried they’ll never save enough. To avoid that scenario, Boise needs more houses, Bieter said, because people will keep moving here.
“The demand is going to come,” he said. “We have to have more supply and make the most of what we can do in existing city limits and the area of impact.”
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The mayor proposed a $20 million housing land trust that would provide an ongoing source of money to encourage home ownership. The city and philanthropists would contribute money to that account and provide land for the construction of new homes, he said.
At the same time, though, the city should soon slow down housing development in the Foothills, which has flourished in a robust housing market flush with cash from out-of-state buyers. Today, Bieter said, the city has approved proposals for about 400 more Foothills houses — close to filling up the areas where city leaders anticipated development decades ago when they began to contemplate Boise’s Foothills Policy Plan.
“I say we shouldn’t annex property or rezone property after that 400 units,” he said. “Collectively, we need to say, ‘No more.’ The Foothills, ladies and gentlemen, are just too precious. When we look at our children, and we imagine their children and the generations to come, don’t you want to be able say that we protected that resource, that we protected the beautiful environment that we live in?”
If the Foothills are off-limits, then, homes must be built in the flatlands if Boise is to achieve the number of houses needed to keep life here affordable, Bieter said. But there aren’t many large tracts of undeveloped land within city limits or even on its outskirts.
So the city needs to “maximize the densities” of infill projects sprinkled throughout the city, Bieter said. That aligns with the ideology of Boise’s planning department and elected leaders.
Bieter seeks referendum on local transit tax
The best places for dense, high-rise buildings are along public transportation routes, Bieter said. The mayor and his supporters have long pushed for authority from the state to hold elections that, if successful, would authorize the collection of additional tax money for public transportation projects. Bieter favors a rail-based transit system whose attractiveness to riders and capacity to spur high-density, multi-use land development, he believes, would outweigh its high cost.
Idaho’s Legislature has never granted cities that authority. So on Wednesday, Bieter proposed an end-around: using a citizen referendum to force the state to put the matter before voters. He said this effort could mirror campaigns by proponents of a statewide Medicaid expansion and legalized gambling on historical horse racing.
Industrial park planned near Micron
Higher-paying jobs could help more Boiseans afford housing, too. Bieter said some of those jobs could be achieved by filling out an industrial park near the WinCo distribution center across Interstate 84 from Micron Technology Inc. on the city’s southeastern edge.
Boise leaders have long looked to that area as a center for manufacturing and other industrial jobs. The city is considering establishing an urban renewal district there. Bieter said Boyer Company, a Salt Lake City developer, plans to build the industrial park in partnership with the city.
“We need to diversify our economy,” he said. “We need the kinds of jobs that these new businesses will attract, to put upward pressure on wages.”
A city of ‘kindness’
And though those jobs will attract even more newcomers, he said Boise shouldn’t lose its friendliness — the culture in which drivers still let people cut in front of them and the people cutting in front are polite enough to wave in gratitude.
“Call it Boise kind, our kindness manifesto,” Bieter said. “We need to call those values out now. It’ll say to those coming to Boise, ‘You’re welcome. Please come here. But these are our expectations of you. And it says to each other, ‘These are our expectations of each other.’”