For rent sign.psd

BOISE — Affordable housing has been a hot topic in the halls of Boise government, but this week, it cropped up in an unusual location.

On Monday, three diverse players in Boise’s housing ecosystem stood on a the small, dimly lit stage at Pengilly’s Saloon to share the impacts of the Treasure Valley’s affordability problem and how it affects diverse segments of our society, as part of University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research’s Policy Pub series.

Former Boise Independent School District Superintendent Don Coberly, Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo and affordable housing developer Caleb Roope shared insight into how the problem can be addressed and hopes for change.

Rising rents and housing prices have been a major stressor on Boiseans’ wallets in recent years, and the impact of property taxes and rising property values have been a central point of contention in municipal elections all over the region. Lachiondo said this year, the county commissioners heard appeals from property owners looking for a property tax reduction in order to help keep rents affordable for their tenants, but because of the way the laws are structured, they were unable to relieve that pressure.

“There really is no way for counties to enact any kind of policy that would mitigate some of those property taxes for folks who are providing that kind of housing and nor is there property tax abatement for many affordable housing developments in our community,” she said. “That has its roots in state policy, but certainly affecting us at the county level.”

Cost of living that out paces wages doesn’t just affect adults, but their children as well. Coberly said the housing crisis continues to impact the school system by adding more instability for students and preventing them from being prepared to learn, which continues the cycle of poverty.

Coberly said in 1990, only a quarter of students in Boise schools qualified for free or reduced lunch. That number has doubled to half of the student population; some low-income elementary schools, like Koelsch Elementary School on the Boise Bench, have 85% of its students qualifying for food assistance.

There are over 800 homeless students in the school district, with the majority of them residing with other families while displaced, Coberly said. He said the district has a growing Community Schools program, where social services like food pantries are co-located in low-income schools to help keep families stable and help them in times of need. He also lauded the district’s partnership with the city of Boise and nonprofits to create pre-K programs in four schools to help with early literacy.

“Fewer than half of the students in Idaho are ready for reading at the beginning of kindergarten,” he said. “We have to start doing something to deal with that.”

As a developer, Roope said he is concerned that lawmakers are uninformed about how their policies are increasing cost of living. He pointed specifically to California, where local governments have enacted lots of environmental regulations on the housing market.

“There’s a total disconnect between the leaders in a community and the choices they make,” Roope said. “… If I could advocate for one thing, (officials would say) we want this street beautification thing here or these certain kinds of landscaping here, but the price of the home or the apartment is that much more.”

Lachiondo pointed to the lack of funding for affordable housing in Idaho from the state and federal government. One of the only tools affordable housing developers can use in Idaho is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit from the federal government, but it is a very competitive applicant pool and only six projects were able to get funding for the entire state in 2019. Idaho has a housing trust fund, but it does not have any dedicated funds.

“Often I hear folks say why aren’t these developers just producing more afforable housing and it’s because their cost of producing a unit of housing is the same whether it’s market rate or it’s low income,” she said. “You needs layers upon layers upon layers of subsidies to produce housing you can rent out for a low amount of money.”

Lachiondo and Roope agreed that Boise is early enough in its affordability crisis that the problem can be fixed before prices shoot into the stratosphere, like in Seattle and Portland, but the time window to act is closing.

“We have an opportunity,” Roope said. “We haven’t hit that precipice of that point where you can’t get your arms around the problem and get it under control. We have a chance to deal with some of the problems communities in the west have been facing that have crippled the communities and made it why people come here.”

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