Boise & Garden City

Not everyone loves this potential solution to Boise’s affordable housing problem

To combat the city’s ballooning housing costs, some Boiseans are thinking small.

With housing prices rising, the Boise City Council voted in March to direct city staffers to draft changes to a city ordinance to encourage more backyard cottages, apartments attached to homes and other accessory dwellings. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission plans to vote on the changes at its 6 p.m. meeting Monday at City Hall.

The changes would allow dwellings as big as 700 square feet, up from 600 now. Units could have two bedrooms, not the one allowed now.

The goal: to create more affordable housing in a market that is pricing many people out.

Zillow, a website dedicated to real estate and rentals, reports the median list price of a home in Boise as $349,900, and the median rent is $1,395 per month.

Renters like that “accessory dwelling units,” sometimes called mother-in-law apartments, are often less expensive than other rentals. Homeowners appreciate that the spaces can house aging parents or out-of-town guests — or provide side incomes.

An accessory dwelling unit can come from converting an existing living area, basement or attic, building an addition to a house, adding an apartment over a detached garage or building a cottage behind the house.

Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor David Bieter, said the city doesn’t know how many accessory dwellings it has. A significant number probably lack permits, he said.

This accessory dwelling unit has a living space on the second floor above an external garage. It is fitted with plumbing, a bed and a small kitchen. The owners are reluctant to offer it up as a rental unit because of already congested parking in Boise’s North End, but a plan by the city of Boise would ease restrictions on such properties. Darin Oswald Darin Oswald

A Boise goal: more density

The changes are part of the city’s larger “Grow Our Housing” effort, which focuses on having a “healthy housing ecosystem” that “includes homes across all income ranges.” The initiative calls for more density, a feature of urban life some Boiseans are hesitant to embrace, but that city officials say strengthens neighborhoods, promotes walkability and makes efficient use of public services.

Boise launched the effort to try to meet the growing city’s housing needs, particularly for those who have lower incomes. Accessory dwellings fall squarely into the city’s plans by helping to increase density at what is typically a lower cost than new home construction.

Nick Seley, a 32-year-old Boise man who rents a small home on a homeowner’s lot, said he loves the home. It’s in the Sunset neighborhood, and his rent is $650 per month, including utilities.

Seley learned of the house from a friend who had lived in it. He saw it as a great way to leave his one-bedroom apartment with a rent that was set to rise $200 over two years.


Why did we write this story?

Housing in Boise is increasingly expensive and increasingly unattainable for that reason. This story dives into one potential solution the city sees to resolve that: Relaxing rules for “accessory dwelling units,” the legal name for backyard cottages and apartments attached to other single-family homes. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

Where did the idea come from?

Boise is going through the process of updating the regulations for such units. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission will consider the new language at its meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, May 6, on the third floor of Boise City Hall.

How do I share my own housing story?

If you have any related stories or concerns, reach out to Hayley Harding at One of her beats is Boise government, so if you have other Boise stories you think she should be looking at, let her know.

“I make $18 an hour,” Seley said. “Trying to survive on that with a house? That would be cutting it close.”

Since moving into the property two years ago, he said he’s been able to save enough money to finance a trip to New Zealand, a vacation he said he likely would not have been able to take otherwise.

Finding the unit was a stroke of luck, Seley said.

“Most people my age have a hard time affording housing,” he said. “For people who have a less-than job, these kinds of places are an affordable route to survive.”

A plan by the city of Boise would ease restrictions on accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, being used as rental properties. An increase in available housing might provide more affordable options in Boise. ADUs are sometimes called mother-in-law apartments. Darin Oswald Darin Oswald

A good investment

For homeowners, accessory dwellings can be a good investment. Tona Maye West, a real estate agent, said she has worked with clients who are “deeply interested” in having the additional units on their property for guests, for family or to rent out.

West said people who are looking for space where their older parents can be independent often end up buying larger homes for themselves and separate small houses for their parents. More accessory dwellings on properties would allow families to stay all on the same property and possibly open up small, cheaper homes on the market for buyers making their first forays into real estate.

“It’s a tough market already, and that would help open some doors,” she said.

People are also looking to build the units on the properties they already have. Chelsea Whitney, an architectural designer and the owner of Dropline Designs, said she has received calls from several homeowners interested in adding accessory dwellings.

The proposed changes “will be good in the long run for homeowners,” she said. “It’s a subsidy for a mortgage, and it helps the need for rentals in the area. In the current housing situation, anything is going to be a benefit.”

Affordability a ‘false narrative’

Lori Dicaire, an activist who runs Vanishing Boise, doesn’t buy that argument. She said simply increasing the housing supply doesn’t make it all more affordable.

“We haven’t seen that, and at this point, it seems like a false narrative,” Dicaire said. Investors value profitability over affordability, which keeps prices high, she said.

Cody Riddle, deputy planning director for the city, wrote in his report to the Planning and Zoning Commission that the changes are “necessary for the general welfare of Boise’s residents.” But many residents gave the city feedback indicating they disagree.

“I can understand your desire to increase density in areas close to Downtown, but I am concerned about the destruction of the single family neighborhood,” Gregg Ostrow, a Boise resident, wrote to Bieter. “Many of us live 10 feet apart from each other and need to work together to maintain a congenial relationship.”

One common concern voiced by unidentified Boiseans on city comment forms is that accessory dwellings may make it harder to find parking, particularly in parts of the city where parking is already in short supply.

“Older neighborhoods are in danger of being swamped by an excess of parking on the street,” one person wrote. “New ADUs need to carry their own weight as far as not adding to the on-street parking burden.”

The parking problem

Parking is one factor that kept Leslie Webb, a homeowner in the North End who has a “mother-in-law” unit over her two-car garage, from considering renting out that space. She loved the thought of contributing “in a tiny way” to the community by creating another affordable housing option but, ultimately, her family opted to keep the space off the market.

“I can very easily see the downside,” Webb said. “If you move into my space with your partner, and you have a car and they have a car, that’s two more cars. That suddenly adds twice as many cars that weren’t there before.”

There are other factors that keep her from renting it out as well — for instance, her dog, Tater Truman McPickles, is going through what Webb described as a “protective phase” that involves a lot of growling.

While she can see the positive sides of a change to ADU requirements, she worried that increased congestion with the rise of such units could be a problem.

“I’m more conscious of my neighbor’s experiences,” Webb said. “There’s a lot to consider there.”

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.