Editor’s note: This guest opinion is part of our ongoing conversation, Our Changing Valley, about growth in the Treasure Valley.
The Treasure Valley may be one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, but it is not the only region with a need to adapt to rapid change. A variety of cities and states have taken bold steps to modernize zoning, right-size parking requirements and collaborate at a regional level to improve housing affordability. We do not have to start from scratch but can instead adopt best practices from around the country. These reforms will improve housing affordability, reduce sprawl and improve transportation options across the Treasure Valley.
Cities in the Treasure Valley should consider adopting zoning reforms pioneered elsewhere. Many of these reforms include ways to increase housing options inside existing city limits. It is true that large, dense developments are often unpopular. These types of very dense developments may be appropriate for downtown cores, or along transit-rich corridors, but elsewhere in the region, more creative solutions are needed. Minneapolis; Durham, North Carolina; and the states of Oregon and California are a few examples of cities and states that have adopted bold zoning reforms to allow for a more diverse mix of housing options.
Expanding the availability of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, is one common tool (Boise recently liberalized its ADU ordinances). Removing bans on duplexes or triplexes in most neighborhoods, where two or three families can live in one structure, is another.
Form-based zoning, where allowed developments depend more on the shape and size of the structure (and therefore, compatibility with the surrounding environment) rather than the use of the building is another promising idea worth considering. Presidential candidates have released plans that encourage these types of reforms. These types of changes allow for more economically integrated neighborhoods, with housing options for all price points. These types of reforms can have a big impact on affordability over time, without quick or dramatic changes to neighborhood character, and also preserve a people-scaled built environment.
Parking minimums drive up the cost of housing and utilize an enormous amount of land better suited to other uses, such as homes, parks, offices or schools. Reducing or eliminating parking minimums can be an important tool to increase housing affordability. In the case of multi-family housing, some cities such as Seattle have taken the step of “uncoupling” rent and parking fees; if a family in a given apartment needs only one parking spot, they only pay for one. This directly lowers housing costs for those who need less parking than average, without shifting any burdens to others. These changes can also help put other modes of transit, such as buses or bikes, on a more equal footing with cars.
These are regional challenges, and all cities in the Treasure Valley have a part to play in the solution. Every city has restaurants, coffee shops, automotive mechanics and other services that may not always pay enough for workers to afford a detached single-family home on a large lot. Allowing for new housing options in the downtown cores of larger cities such as Boise, Eagle and Meridian can reduce the need for these workers to spend time and money commuting, reduce traffic on key congested thoroughfares such as Eagle Road and Chinden Road and also help to preserve the Treasure Valley’s agricultural heritage in places such as Kuna and Star.
The Treasure Valley is a special place. We should all be proud to have built a thriving community that attracts new neighbors from all over Idaho and the rest of the country. As a region, we can decide to lean into these changes and create the best place we can, for all who want to live here, or we can try to pull up the drawbridge to stop change from happening. Let’s be bold and adopt the policies needed to welcome our new neighbors and maintain a flourishing community for all.