City leaders, supposedly committed to affordable housing, reject student housing project

Matt Tobeck Articles, SMART Boise Leave a Comment

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean acted as the tiebreaking vote at five-hour long city council meeting on September 29, 2020. 

The main subject of the meeting: Whether to grant developer Collegiate Development Group’s rezoning request to build a student housing project at the corner of West Boise Avenue and South Protest Road. The existence of a severe student housing shortage at Boise State University, as well as a housing shortage in Boise generally, wasn’t enough, however, to convince city councilors and the mayor to allow the project to proceed. 

Councilmembers Holli Woodings and Patrick Bageant voted in favor of the rezoning request, while councilmembers Elaine Clegg and Jimmy Hallyburton voted against it (Councilmembers TJ Thomson and Lisa Sanchez were absent). Presiding over the meeting, the mayor broke the tie in disallowing the project — a project initially presented to the city roughly a year ago. 

City Council President Clegg, who moved to deny the rezone, stated in part, “While I appreciate there is certainly a market for simply student housing in this area, there is also a market for other kinds of housing. There’s a shortage of housing for professors, a shortage of housing for graduate students. There’s a shortage of housing for various staff at BSU who are essential workers and service workers.” 

Perhaps someone should inform Clegg that creating housing for one group of people, in this case students, frees up housing for others. The more housing that is built, the easier for everyone to find housing and the lower the cost of housing will be. It’s a fairly simple rule — known as supply and demand.

Sadly, Clegg and the other councilors who voted against the zoning change, and hence the housing project, seem to be ignoring that rule, as they fight to protect 25 relatively affordable housing units from being demolished and they prevent the creation of 196 desperately needed new apartments. 

One of Clegg’s chief concerns, as well as a concern for Hallyburton and the mayor, was the area in question is designated as a neighborhood activity center in Blueprint Boise. Such areas, according to Blueprint Boise, are supposed to be designed as mixed use, including commercial uses, so as to encourage access from adjacent neighborhoods. Before casting her vote to deny the rezone, Clegg stated, “I find that this particular development is not in compliance as it’s currently presented to us with Blueprint Boise.”

Céline Acord, a planning manager for the city, responded to Clegg, “Blueprint Boise is a guideline.” Acord stressed, “At the end of the day, these activity centers, our city continues to grow and change, it’s more of a vision of what we’d like to see in the area than absolute rules and ordinance.” Acord’s observation, though true, wasn’t enough to assuage the concerns of city councilors, who apparently know better what the market needs than a developer, whose job it is to provide the precise type of housing most in demand in a given location. 

Bageant attempted to rebut the charge that the project contained an insufficient degree of mixed use. He remarked, “There’s no [zoning] requirement that one property provide all the uses for a mixed use area. It’s supposed to be mixed use among properties.” His pointalso fell on deaf ears. 

Woodings, who voted to allow the rezone, highlighted the need for student housing. She noted that Boise State University’s student population had grown almost 20% over the last five years. Woodings asked, “The question is, does this project, does this proposed project, serve a need that we have in this particular community?” She continued, “Seeing the kinds of strife caused by student populations living in an established old neighborhood, I think that it makes perfect sense to create more student housing density closer to campus.” 

However, that the proposed project site is located just a few blocks south of Boise State University did not sway the majority of the council, some of whom also cited concerns over unaddressed transportation infrastructure needs in the area.

For example, the mayor asserted, “We need to do more…to encourage people to actually stay out of their cars, or to think about not taking a car to college. It’s very possible to do that, but it’s going to take a while to change that culture from the car to college piece.” If the mayor wants to encourage people to reduce their auto usage, if such social-engineering is really within her scope as mayor, it’s odd that she voted to deny a much-needed high-density student housing development that would be within walking distance of campus.

In his unsuccessful attempt to sway the council to approve the rezoning, Bageant got to what should have been the heart of the issue. He underscored the obvious, “One of the unshakeable facts about the city of Boise is we do not have enough housing, period.” He continued, “If we are serious about affordable housing we need to be able to explain why we would say no to 500 more beds in the city of Boise. That’s very difficult to do.” 

City councilors claim they want more affordable housing built in Boise. One way to achieve that is to have more housing built. This begs the question: Why did council members reject a developer’s rezoning request, which would have created nearly 500 bedrooms for students? Until the Boise City Council stops indefinitely delaying much-needed housing projects, as they force developers to yield to their own personal preferences, Boise is going to continue to experience unaffordable housing as a major problem.

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