Boise State University

Landowners started building 10-room duplexes. Then the neighbors cried foul

Erik Berg became concerned a couple of years ago when he noticed several duplexes going up in his neighborhood south of the Boise State University campus.

The buildings weren’t typical duplexes with two or three bedrooms that might serve either students or families. They were larger buildings with four or five bedrooms on each side that seemed aimed strictly at Boise State students.

“They’re built in a fashion where there’s not a lot of common space,” said Berg, a roofer, in an interview. “You walk in and there’s a barstool counter, enough room for a couch, kitchen, and everything else is bedrooms and bathrooms. They’re designed effectively to be dorm rooms.”

The Boise City Council will soon consider a change to the city’s development code designed to keep the area north of Boise Avenue, along Protest Road to Garfield Street east to Division Avenue, from losing its traditional family-home character to the student onslaught.

The change is the latest attempt by City Hall to cope with the Borg-like assimilation of blocks south of campus by the ever-growing Boise State student body. About 3,000 students live in campus housing, but it’s not enough.

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Potential boundaries of an overlay district under discussion by the Boise City Council to limit housing density south of the Boise State University campus. One city councilwoman has suggested that the far northeast (upper right) corner be excluded from the zone. Provided by the city of Boise

Southeast Neighborhood emergency ordinance

In spring 2017, following a request from the SouthEast Neighborhood Association, where Berg is president, the Boise City Council imposed a six-month emergency ordinance that required additional parking for larger duplexes. It required an additional parking space for each bedroom beyond three.

That effectively eliminated any ability to build four- and five-bedroom duplexes (eight or 10 bedrooms combined) on a typical 50-foot-wide lot.

In July 2017, the council replaced the emergency ordinance with a permanent amendment to the city development code. It prohibits developers from using more than 55% of a lot for the footprint of the building and increases the requirement for outdoor open space from 150 square feet to 375.

The permanent standards did not impose a requirement for additional parking.

The neighborhood association did not think the amendment went far enough. Last August, it wrote a letter to the council seeking an emergency moratorium on high-occupancy housing on small lots — what the association calls “stealth dorms.”

In the interview, Berg said he’s concerned that construction of additional duplexes with 10 total bedrooms could push residents with single-family homes out of the neighborhood. It’s just a matter of economics, he said.

Having a duplex with 10 total bedrooms rented out to students at $500 to $750 per person per month generates $5,000 to $7,500 in revenue per month, he said.

“I’ve done the math on my own home,” said Berg, who lives in a 2,172-square-foot, two-story house built in 1948 in the 1300 block of South Grant Avenue. “I would be financially better off to tear down my house, build some duplexes and rent it out. But that wouldn’t help preserve the single-family housing that our neighborhood plan calls for.”

Already, he said, only 20% to 30% of the homes in the neighborhood are owner-occupied. The rest are rented out to students and families. It’s unlikely, he said, that a family would pay $2,500 a month to rent half of a duplex with no real yard space.

Duplex manager: students vs. families

Sue Dominiak, who manages several campus-area rentals, including a new duplex that opened in June in the 1300 block of South Lincoln Avenue, said she understands the frustrations of Berg and other long-time campus area residents. She said there’s a housing shortage throughout Boise, and there isn’t enough student housing on the campus itself.

“I think it would be great for more families to move into the area,” Dominiak said. “I just think that because of location, students are the ones looking in this area.”

It’s a difficult neighborhood, she said, for families who want to sit outside on a Saturday when Boise State is playing a home football game and there are people walking to Albertsons Stadium drinking alcohol and being loud.

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Property manager Sue Dominiak tells Erik Berg, president of the SouthEast Neighborhood Association, that it’s appropriate to have high-density housing within walking distance of Boise State University. They’re speaking inside a duplex with 10 bedrooms two blocks south of campus. “Now if there was enough housing on campus, you could take some of those students out of a rental like this,” Dominiak said. John Sowell

Dominiak said she formerly managed a small house a few blocks away on South Manitou Avenue. Families that rented it generally stayed a year or less. The owners finally decided to raze it and build a duplex.

Kate Rousmaniere, a professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio and the mayor of Oxford, where the university is located, said Boise State’s situation is not unusual. Universities across the nation are seeing increased student populations but haven’t kept up by building new campus dormitories and apartments.

It’s natural that students want to live close enough to campus that they can walk or bicycle. That means the neighborhoods surrounding a university are most desirable for rentals, she said.

Oxford has a population of 23,000, which nearly doubles when school is in session. Student housing has overtaken neighborhoods surrounding the university.

“Faculty and families used to live there, and now those places are like 99% student rentals,” Rousmaniere said by phone.

In about 2011, concerned that even more houses could become rentals, Oxford’s City Council passed an ordinance that allows homeowners in a neighborhood to petition the city to create what planners call an overlay zone. It prohibits more than two people who aren’t related to one another from living together in a home.

That makes it harder for a property owner to make money by converting the property to student housing. It requires signatures from 75% of homeowners in the neighborhood to create an overlay zone.

Oxford followed the lead of East Lansing, Michigan, home to Michigan State University, which in 2004 did something similar. East Lansing’s ordinance requires two-thirds of neighborhood residents to agree.

In Oxford, the system has worked well, Rousmaniere said. “Everyone has been sort of waiting for some homeowner to sue and say this is unconstitutional, but so far that hasn’t happened,” she said.

Overlay zone, development limits

Boise is taking a different approach, though it, too, may soon use the overlay zone idea.

City officials have rejected the neighborhood association’s latest emergency moratorium. Instead, at a work session of the City Council last week, the city’s planning staff recommended establishing an overlay district that would add new restrictions on the neighborhood’s development.

Boise State students Mitchell Bandy, left, and Michael Richardson play offense-defense with their friend J.D. Johnson. Bandy and Richardson live in a single-family home with two other roommates on Grant Street near campus. The SouthEast Neighborhood Association would like to preserve and encourage homes like this one that are suitable a mix of students, families and professors, instead of dorm-like duplexes designed with four or five bedrooms per side. Katherine Jones

Duplexes with more than three bedrooms per side would require a conditional use permit, an approval process that would require developers to justify their plans and give neighbors a chance to weigh in against them. Duplexes would be prohibited on lots smaller than 50 feet wide.

The changes could limit the number of large duplexes sited in the neighborhood and would preserve a mix of student housing and single-family homes.

“We believe those changes would help maintain some neighborhood character, without creating an outright prohibition on construction,” Cody Riddle, the city’s deputy director of planning, told the council.

Council President Lauren McLean said she would like to see the overlay district and the new restrictions added to the city code as quickly as possible. She said she doesn’t want to see a flood of applications from developers while “we’re working through a solution in this unique part of town.”

Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg raised concerns about including a proposed corner of the area on the east side of campus, north of Beacon and extending east to Division Avenue. Much of that area contains businesses, and homes are more scattered.

“I’m not sure that that should be included,” Clegg said. “I think that’s a much different character area. It already has a fair amount of commercial within it, and I’m not sure that these restrictions would fit there.”

Riddle said he expects to have a draft code revision to go before the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission early next year. Once the commission makes a recommendation, the City Council will take it up again.

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Reporter John Sowell has worked for the Statesman since 2013. He covers business and growth issues. He grew up in Emmett and graduated from the University of Oregon.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.