If Boise’s Capital City Development Corporation has its way, by this time next year, Boise will officially have a sixth urban renewal district. This latest district would span both sides of State Street from Boise’s West End all the way up to Eagle.
As described on CCDC’s State Street website, the motivation behind yet another urban renewal district is to make the corridor less “auto-dominated,” as well as to “diversify Boise’s housing.” In other words, the City of Boise, through the CCDC, hopes to more easily expand public transportation along the corridor and to “encourage” the creation of more affordable housing.
There’s only one problem: Those are not lawful reasons to create urban renewal districts, not that this has ever stopped Boise in the past.
For those unfamiliar with the CCDC, it is Boise’s urban renewal agency, with the self-described mission of “revitaliz[ing] Boise’s downtown and its neighborhoods through urban design and development initiatives.” If you think this is a rather vague and all-encompassing explanation of the CCDC’s duties and powers, I agree.
Idaho’s urban renewal law of 1965 was established to revitalize “deteriorated and deteriorating areas” which were a “menace” or “injurious” to the public and resulted in things like “disease” and “crime.” In short, this law was not intended to be used to fund projects to rid the world of automobiles or even to help better institute a city’s favored affordable housing policies.
Today, most city officials instituting urban renewal give the actual intent behind this law only tacit recognition at best. A proposed district does not need to be economically depressed or deteriorated at all.
In the case of the proposed State Street district, for example, one of the reasons detailed by the CCDC as justification for a district there is “growth in property valuations in the Study Area lagged behind that of the city of Boise.” Using metrics such as slightly lower property values growth, it’s clear the bar for creating urban renewal districts effectively does not exist.
In fact, to establish a district, the CCDC must do little more than produce a report explaining why it believes an area of the city is somehow depressed and is therefore in need of renewal, be it economically or in any way relating to its infrastructure. Once their report is written, the agency needs only the patience to endure a city's drawn-out bureaucratic rubber-stamping process in order to create the new district.
Interestingly enough, CCDC has actually undertaken urban renewal projects in areas seeing exceptional growth. And why not? After all, under the funding scheme used by urban renewal districts, any revenue derived from any increase in property values for properties residing within the district can be diverted straight back to the district to fund whatever pet project the city determines the area needs. Therefore, in commandeering an already growing area of a city, a city can potentially divert more revenue to that district quicker.
Unfortunately, in doing so, the city effectively increases taxes on surrounding neighborhoods, since those funds could have otherwise been used for things such as schools, police, or fire services in surrounding areas, but which are now being used only for one specific area and purpose.
This new version of urban renewal has nothing to do with remedying “menacing” or “injurious” sections of the city. Rather, it is increasingly apparent that the real purpose of urban renewal is to influence the control of large, privately owned portions of the city while increasingly sidestepping public input on how public revenue is spent.
Sadly, cities like Boise seem to be creating urban renewal districts with increasing vigor and boldness, and with very little pushback. If cities continue to twist urban renewal in this manner, perhaps it’s time to simply repeal Idaho’s urban renewal law. The alternative is to continue to give city officials inadvisable discretion over taxpayer dollars and to allow them to use that discretion to fund projects wholly unrelated to actually renewing urban areas.