BOISE — Ten candidates vying for three open seats on the Boise City Council last week discussed housing affordability along with their opinions on an upcoming sewer bond in a forum hosted by the City Club of Boise.
Next month’s election will be the first since the Idaho Legislature passed a 2020 bill requiring cities with more than 100,000 residents elect council members by geographic district. There are six Boise districts. This year’s race is for two-year terms, rather than the usual four. Only Boise residents who live in Districts 1, 3 and 5 can vote in the council election
Stephanie Witt, Ph.D., a professor at Boise State University’s School of Public Service, moderated Thursday’s virtual forum, which was streamed online. Among other things, Witt asked candidates how they would tackle housing affordability, and their position on a sewer bond that will be on next month’s ballot.
The $570 million bond would fund wastewater projects. If the bond doesn’t pass, water renewal (sewer) fee payers could be on the hook for a 53% rate increase in 2022.
The candidates for District 1 — representing West Boise, including the Centennial and the West Valley neighborhood west of Five Mile Road — are David Jones, Laura Metzler and Luci Willits. Anne Garabedian initially filed paperwork to run in District 1, but she withdrew her candidacy last month.
Willits, an executive at a North Carolina-based education research and analytics company, said the biggest challenge facing District 1 is a lack of representation in city government. “People live here, they love it here, but they often feel like they’re left out and their voice isn’t heard,” she said.
Asked how she would tackle affordable housing, Willits said she doesn’t “profess to have the answers,” and “if we knew the answer, we would’ve fixed it by now.” But, she added, it’s likely an issue of supply and demand.
Willits said she does not support the sewer bond, because there needs to be more conversation about it. She’s also skeptical of spending too much money on climate change policies. Willits believes in climate change and supports some mitigation measures, such as recycling and composting, but she questions “the cost of going above and beyond that,” she said. “As a fiscal conservative, I would like to look at the return on investment,” she said.
Metzler, a retired postal worker, said the biggest challenge facing West Boise is growth. Metzler agreed that supply and demand issues are causing problems in housing affordability, but she added that wages should be increased and rent should be controlled. “Is rent affordable if the property owner raises the rent every six months?” she said.
Metzler said she supports the city’s approach to tackling climate change. “I do believe that the city is on the right course to addressing (climate change), and I want to continue to address climate change issues,” she said. And she’s in favor of the sewer bond.
“It’s never easy to put money up front, but in the long run we’re probably better in saving money in doing so, because … the more expensive it gets to get the same bang for your buck,” she said.
Jones, a military veteran and candidate for District 1, did not participate in last week’s forum. In a profile on the city’s website, Jones said, “anger” led him to enter the race.
“I was tired of being angry about property tax increases, the never-ending litany of bonds, levies, lack of transparency from the city government, and not being heard as a taxpayer…” Jones said.
The candidates for District 3 — which encompasses a number of neighborhoods north of State Street, including much of the North End, the Highlands, Veterans Park, Pierce Park and Northwest Boise — are incumbent Lisa Sánchez along with Nicholas Domeny, Greg MacMillan and Maria Santa Cruz-Cernik.
Domeny, a U.S. Army drill sergeant and business owner, said the biggest challenge facing District 3 is a lack of infrastructure, including roads that meet the demand brought by new Northwest Boise homes. “I think we need to start focusing on getting our roads there, making sure we’re planning everything out that we need to because we are growing,” he said.
Domeny said he’s not familiar with the sewer bond, but he may support it.
Boise needs better jobs and more protections for renters, Domeny said. “It’s just coming down to building more homes and making it more affordable for everybody to buy a home,” he said.
Santa Cruz-Cernik, a business owner, said the biggest challenge facing her district is Interfaith Sanctuary’s proposed emergency homeless shelter on State Street, which she does not support. She does, however, support affordable tiny homes.
The root of Boise’s housing crises, she said, is out-of-state buyers outbidding locals. “That doesn’t seem fair to me,” she said.
Santa Cruz-Cernik said she hasn’t made up her mind about the sewer bond. “I know it’s needed, but the price is a little outrageous,” she said.
Sánchez, who is seeking a second term on the council, touted her work thus far, including sponsoring renter protections and opposing an attempt by the Idaho Legislature to strike them down.
She said, “What I think we need to do is develop relationships with socially responsible developers. I do believe they’re out there. We need to be creative about who we invite to build in our community. We cannot have people who are solely driven by profit. We need folks entering into the sphere who truly want to provide affordable hosing for our community.”
As the city council president pro tem this year, Sánchez voted in favor of a sewer bond election. She said, if water renewal rate payers front the cost of the sewer improvements, it will be difficult for people who live on fixed incomes. “It’s important for everyone to pay into this system,” she said. “If we were to pay right up front, our rates could go up at a significant rate. It could be devastating for many members of our community.”
MacMillan said he will “probably vote ‘No’” on the bond. The city should explore other ways to fund sewer improvements, he said.
A real estate agent, MacMillan said he hopes to improve communication between residents and City Hall. His top priorities are public safety, transportation and housing supply, which can be improved by boosting resources for the city’s planning department so it can more quickly approve developments.
“The culture that we have and the quality of life that we have in a lot of these neighborhoods, we enjoy, but we absolutely have to find a way to give opportunities to” renters, first-time home buyers and people experiencing homelessness, MacMillan said.
The candidates for District 5 — which includes downtown, the West and East ends, Depot Bench, Central Bench, Morris Hill and the Central Rim — are incumbent Holli Woodings along with Katie Fite, J. “Crispin” Gravatt and Steve Madden.
Madden, a retiree who formerly worked in the construction industry, said his priorities are controlling the pace of growth and mitigating its impacts, such as traffic congestion. Madden said he would support preserving open space in the East End over new affordable housing projects.
The sewer bond is not detailed enough on the projects it would fund, Madden said, and he does not support burdening taxpayers with interest and debt.
Meanwhile, housing costs are connected to “how much money people have in their pockets,” he said. Madden opposes increasing the minimum wage as well as rent control and government assistance for housing. As a councilman, Madden would reduce tax burdens on businesses, which would put “more money in people’s pockets,” he said. “I think that would be a really good start.”
Woodings, who is seeking a second term on the council, said housing affordability is the biggest challenge facing District 5. She supports increasing workforce housing and concentrating employment opportunities and housing together, to improve access and affordability.
“That comes down to increasing our housing stock, making sure that neighborhoods are connected and making sure that we have employment opportunities that are paying a living wage so that people can live close to where they work,” Woodings said.
As a City Council member, Woodings voted in favor of the sewer bond. On Thursday, she noted the city will continue to explore other funding options, including federal money, to offset the bond debt, if it passes.
Fite, a biologist who has worked for government and nonprofit agencies, is skeptical of the sewer bond — there are “big uncertainties,” she said.
She believes housing is the top priority for District 5. “We need to quit tearing down our existing affordable housing,” she said.
On the City Council, Fite said she would push for affordable housing requirements within new developments. Fite also supports alternative housing options, such as trailer parks and tiny homes, which are “immediate solutions for people who need help now,” she said. She also recommended the council host a 30-minute open public comment period each meeting.
Gravatt, an educator and the chairman of Boise’s Public Works Commission, noted that he is the only renter running in District 5. His priorities include boosting wages, supporting Boise’s arts community, limiting the impacts of growth — such as strains on the city’s water and air quality and open space — and minimizing the challenges of increasing living costs.
“We need more collaborative solutions long-term, but we need to make sure that nobody is left out in the middle while we work on these affordability concerns,” he said.
Gravatt also supports the sewer bond. Through the Public Works Commission, Gravatt has advised the city on its long-term water renewal plans, and, he said, the bond is “our make-or-break moment.”