Boise & Garden City

Bieter proposes smaller lots, more in-law units to fight housing-cost increases

Tall, skinny houses have become popular again in Boise as demand for housing has ramped up over the last several years. In an attempt to increase the stock of affordable housing, he city of Boise is proposing zoning changes that would make it easier to build homes on narrow lots. Skinny houses and small-lot subdivisions don’t have to be ugly, Boise Planning Director Hal Simmons said: “If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that design is everything when it comes to compact development.”
Tall, skinny houses have become popular again in Boise as demand for housing has ramped up over the last several years. In an attempt to increase the stock of affordable housing, he city of Boise is proposing zoning changes that would make it easier to build homes on narrow lots. Skinny houses and small-lot subdivisions don’t have to be ugly, Boise Planning Director Hal Simmons said: “If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that design is everything when it comes to compact development.” doswald@idahostatesman.com

Mayor David Bieter and the planners who report to him proposed a set of changes Tuesday to increase Boise’s housing supply and help stabilize prices, which have skyrocketed so quickly that regular wage-earners say they can no longer afford to live in the city they grew up in.

Planning staffers unveiled the proposals, which Bieter previewed Sept. 12 at this State of the City address, at a City Council meeting.

Here are five of the most important proposals:

1. Make smaller lots.

The city could decrease the minimum lot size for detached homes in standard subdivisions from 5,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet or smaller. That would increase the maximum number of homes that can realistically fit on an acre — after accounting for the amount of land typical road networks take up — from five to six or more, Planning Director Hal Simmons said.

Boise’s planning department is receiving a lot of applications from developers who want to reduce lot sizes, Simmons said, because they’re seeing a demand for more affordable houses with less yard work. To get city approval, those developers must go through a more stringent and subjective permitting process than standard subdivisions face. Decreasing the standard lot size would allow some of the same projects with less red tape.

Such a move has precedent in Boise. Twenty years ago, Simmons said, the city reduced its minimum lot size from 6,000 square feet to today’s standard.

A further reduction in lot size and corresponding density increase could allow thousands more homes to be built in Boise, Simmons said. Many of those would be in neighborhoods like the Central Bench, West Bench, Northwest Boise and Southeast Boise, where large lots and small pockets of vacant land are still available to subdivide.

2. Change how density is measured.

Boise planners propose restricting density based on the total square footage of built space, instead of the number of homes allowed per acre, in zones where apartments are allowed — typically on major streets.

The change would give developers more flexibility on the size of homes they build. For example, today’s rules might allow a developer to build a maximum of 10 two-bedroom apartments on a quarter-acre lot that’s zoned for high-density residential uses. Under the new rules, the developer might build twice as many studios or one-bedroom units that, together, occupy the same square footage as the 10 larger ones.

3. Loosen limits on In-law units.

Across Boise, hundreds of homes have finished outbuildings, basements, attics or other spaces with separate entrances. These are sometimes called in-law units. They function as small homes. Some homeowners rent them out to make extra money, perhaps helping them cover mortgage payments.

Boise proposes loosening some restrictions on how these “accessory dwelling units” can be used. One restriction requires the owner of the property to live in at least one of the two homes — either the main home or the in-law unit. That requirement could be removed so that the owner of a rental property could build an extra small home there.

“We turn away a lot of people who come in and want to do an (accessory dwelling unit), but then it turns out they don’t actually live on the property,” Simmons said.

Another change would increase the maximum size of these homes to 700 feet. The current maximum is 600 square feet. That would make a lot more attics, basements and outbuildings eligible to be in-law units and give property owners more design flexibility, Simmons said.

4. Create a land trust for affordable housing.

Bieter’s staff also unveiled proposals for financial incentives that would augment the zoning changes. They include establishing a housing land trust — a $20 million account aimed at making housing affordable permanently. Half the money could come from the city of Boise or other governments, possibly federal housing grants. The other half would come from private donations.

To optimize the land trust, Boise would work with organizations like the city’s urban renewal agency, the Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority, and the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, an agency that uses federal money to subsidize housing.

5. Expand cash incentives to developers.

Bieter also proposes extending cash incentives the city has awarded developers for Downtown housing to affordable housing projects in other parts of the city. Four years ago, Boise started offering Downtown developers up to $2,000 per home built, with a goal of adding 1,000 homes Downtown by 2020.

Developers are on pace to exceed that mark, said Derick O’Neill, director of Planning and Development Services. And while $2,000 is small, O’Neill said, it effectively signaled to developers that City Hall wanted Downtown housing.

If the incentive program is expanded to areas outside Downtown, it would be reserved for tenants who make no more than 80 percent of the area’s media income — or $39,400 for a single person and $56,250 for a family of four, city spokesman Mike Journee said.

All five proposals are designed to encourage both rental and for-sale homes, Simmons said.

“Housing goes back and forth over time,” he said. “When there’s demand for ownership housing, apartments get converted to condos. When there’s demand for rental housing, it goes the other way. I think that’s something that developers and the market are pretty good at responding to, but you have to make sure that your zones and your codes allow for both.”

City Council members appeared to be in favor of the proposals, which would need the council’s approval before taking effect.

The proposed zoning changes likely would not be finalized until next year, Simmons said. Before enacting them, the city would conduct open houses, City Council workshops, presentations to neighborhoods and other public outreach, he said.

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