Proposed Boise ordinances unlikely to create more affordable housing options

Matt Tobeck Articles, SMART Boise Leave a Comment

The City of Boise has started to rewrite its zoning code. This makes sense: Over the past 10 years, the Boise metro area’s population has grown more than 20%. It was the fastest growing city in the country from 2017-2018. Considering this explosive growth, and that the code hasn’t been updated in more than 55 years, a revamp is appropriate.

Alongside the proposed rewrite, at a time when housing costs are skyrocketing for many Boiseans, the city is also proposing a handful of ordinances that could be in place before the final zoning rewrite. The purpose of those ordinances: the creation and the maintenance of more affordable housing in Boise. The proposed ordinances offer select incentives for developers to build affordable housing and they increase regulatory oversight of construction projects during the preliminary demolition phase. 

Are these ordinances an appropriate use of the city’s power, however? Further, will they actually work? 

Let’s start with the Housing Bonus Ordinance, which is undergoing various stages of presentation to the city council by the Zoning Ordinance Rewrite Project Management Team and is alluded to on page 11 of the mayor’s now-infamous transition team’s housing report

The Housing Bonus Ordinance attempts to create more affordable housing by using various incentives to encourage builders to set aside 10 to 20% of the housing units they build as permanent income-restricted units. The city’s incentives include things like increased building-height allowances, reduced parking requirements, and a more streamlined administrative process.

Setting aside that such incentives may not be sufficient to incentivize developers to participate, incentive programs such as this may run into legal challenges. “Inclusionary zoning,” which mandates that developers set aside a certain portion of the units they build as low-income housing, is legally problematic in Idaho. 

This particular ordinance would not mandate that developers set aside units for low-income housing. However, if favored by a city in such a way so that the issuance of building permits is in any way conditioned even indirectly on participation, it could still run into legal challenges. It’s hard, after all, to imagine how a city could offer a program meant to further its public policy goals, and then to expect a city to wholly ignore whether various developers petitioning for building permits will or will not participate in such a program as they decide to whom they will issue such permits. 

Also, this ordinance clearly demonstrates both the willingness and ability of city officials to relax building restrictions if they believe doing so favors their public policy goals, namely, affordable housing. This begs the question as to why relaxing restrictions would be offered conditionally rather than rewriting and relaxing ordinance and zoning laws across the board. After all, more housing built more quickly would naturally help hold the line on housing costs – the primary purpose of this ordinance.

In other words, rather than attempting to create affordable housing through an exchange of favors, perhaps the City of Boise should get out of the way just a little bit more than they are and let a free market work.

The City of Boise is also considering an ordinance that would increase the time frame before a developer could demolish an existing structure.  Currently that time frame is only a few days, but that would stretch to at least a few weeks. The overarching goal is to garner more community input before demolition occurs, as well as give the city more time to evaluate whether alternatives to demolition would be in the best interest of the city. One such alternative is for the city to try to incentivize a property owner to maintain an existing structure for low-income housing. It also ignores property rights in the way that it seeks both community and city comment regarding whether a person should actually demolish a privately owned structure. 

Further, the city seeks to lengthen the design review process for demolition by dragging out the time period needed for building additional housing units at a time when Boise needs more housing. Perhaps more importantly, as just noted, it’s curious that one of its stated purposes is to actually prevent demolition in order to preserve smaller plots of more affordable housing, thereby preventing additional housing from being constructed at a time when expanding housing is so desperately needed. Sounds a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul if you ask me. 

Instead of dangling incentive programs such as the newly proposed Housing Bonus Ordinance in front of developers in exchange for relaxing zoning requirements, the City of Boise should simplify zoning requirements for all developments in various zones. The need for additional housing in Boise is clear. Simply let builders build and stop standing in their way.