With house prices at record highs in the Boise metro area, there are many voices demanding that city government do something.
Usually, government solutions to housing involve spending taxpayer dollars to subsidize mortgages and rents for certain groups of people. But on the other end of the ideological spectrum is the free market solution, which relies on having the supply of homes outweigh the demand, therefore lowering prices.
This philosophical conflict was in full display when the Boise City Council debated their proposed 2023 budget in July of this year. Councilmember Luci Willits expressed concern that the city was going to become a landlord, while her colleague Lisa Sanchez praised this expansion of government, remarking that city government was the first place she looked for help when she was a homeowner and ran into financial trouble.
Some municipalities throughout the country have passed ordinances requiring developers to set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income renters, some of whom end up paying less than half the market rate. Earlier this year, a coalition of builders in Pittsburgh sued their city council over such an ordinance, arguing that it is an unconstitutional taking of private property.
State and local governments in Idaho are legally barred from imposing any form of rent control on private landlords, but that has not stopped some cities from attempting the Pittsburgh solution. Each of these endeavors has been struck down by courts, so advocacy groups are lobbying the legislature to change the law and allow what they call “inclusionary zoning” practices.
In 2020, the City of Boise floated a Housing Bonus Ordinance that would incentivize developers to reserve 10-20% of their units for low-income renters. While perhaps not strictly illegal, such an ordinance would surely become a de facto mandate anyway.
Perhaps this is why the City of Boise is choosing to purchase property themselves. This side steps the statute against rent control, since the city itself would be the ultimate landlord.
Called the “housing land trust,” this scheme was introduced by Mayor Dave Bieter in 2018 with a feasibility study spearheaded by then-Council President Lauren McClain. The study indicated that Boise could sustain 125 apartments for low-income renters by 2024, but Mayor McLean’s latest budget calls for 1,500 units, 250 of which are meant to house people who are currently homeless.
The proposed 2023 budget allocates $12 million in federal ARPA funds, $17 million from local funds, and $12 million in federal tax dollars for rent assistance grants to purchase, construct, or renovate housing units throughout the city.
In addition to the constitutional, legal, and ideological questions surrounding the idea of a city becoming a landlord, there is the practical question: Does it work? The Urban Institute published a study earlier this year indicating that affordable housing programs increase the cost of nearby homes for non-subsidized families. While this contradicts the common worry that affordable housing programs decrease property values, it reveals an even deeper issue. As housing prices in the Treasure Valley have skyrocketed in recent years, middle-class Americans are increasingly left without options. Their tax dollars are confiscated to subsidize housing costs for low-income people, but the market is increasingly out of reach for their own families.
This is what inevitably happens when the government tries to control the market. It also raises the question: where does this all end? Government programs never go away. What happens when Boise becomes landlord to 1,500 families, but there are still more who want to live in the city and cannot afford it? What happens if the homeless problem only gets worse? Will the city buy even more land and more apartments?
American citizens are clearly concerned about rising housing costs. The question we must ask ourselves is if it is proper for the government to not only become a landlord, but to usurp the role of churches, charities, and individuals? The more government expands, the less room these private enterprises have to voluntarily help their fellow citizens. The end result is Sanchez’s vision of an all-powerful government caring for you from cradle to grave.
STAY CONNECTED with the latest news, research and opinions from the Gem State.