Finding Home 

Rising home costs create need for working class housing

You've got a college degree. You've got a good job with a respectable salary. You think you've got things moving in the right direction. Now comes the hard part­--finding housing.

For an increasing number of Boiseans, the dream of owning a home is just that, a dream--being pushed further out of reach as housing prices continue to rise. The growing gap between income and home prices is creating a group of people not seen in Boise before: working professionals who need affordable housing.

But the city, state and private developers are beginning to take steps to address the needs of this group, which earns too much for federal housing subsidies, but not enough to buy a home.

"We've been working on a workforce housing initiative for the last year or two," said Gerald Hunter, president and executive director of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, a nonprofit agency that works to help address housing needs across the state. "It's become an increasing problem throughout the state," he said.

According to IHFA statistics, Idaho had the third-fastest home-appreciation rate in the country in 2006, with an increase of 14 percent over the previous year. At the same time personal income has increased by only 4 to 5 percent annually.

"You can see there's a gap evolving, and it's likely to get larger rather than smaller," said Pam Sheldon, project manager with the Capitol City Development Corporation.

Median income for the Boise area is now $56,420, according to CCDC, and existing programs are only designed to help those who make less than 80 percent of median income. But meeting the needs of those who fall into the 80 to 140 percent of median bracket required coining a whole new term: workforce housing.

"It's gone from affordable to workforce," said Phil Kushlan, executive director of CCDC. "It focuses on people who are basically making a living wage, be it hospital employees or teachers, but the cost of housing has increased past the point where people feel they can afford a piece of real estate."

"Downtown has lots of jobs in the service industry," Sheldon said. "Restaurants, retail, the beginning steps of anyone's career, landscape architects, accountants, graphic designers, advertising, public relations, administrative staff, medical staff, even some nurses, police, firefighters, city staff, a large segment of government workers in downtown would fit in these categories."

"They have tidy incomes but are still having a hard time," said Tom Lay, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services. "There's just a lack of housing for people who have typically been able to afford a home in some way, because they have a good job."

Last year, CCDC started the discussion when it convened the Workforce Housing Task Force, made up of representatives from housing organizations, community members and area officials.

"We looked at how we, as a community, need to make sure the fundamental workforce has a place to live," Sheldon said.

The targeted housing falls between basic and luxury, with home prices between $110,000 and $190,000, and monthly payments ranging from $800 to $1,400.

"It's an interesting challenge for communities," Hunter said. "There are no federal resources targeted for the group. If you're going to try to create some sort of price advantage to make workforce housing available, you're going to have to be creative."

While resort areas like Sun Valley and McCall have been dealing with the issue for decades, it's now spreading to larger population areas in Idaho. "Urban communities are beginning to see this pressure build, and they are concerned about it," Hunter said. "If you want a vibrant downtown community, you have to have people who live there."

The lack of affordable workforce housing in Boise often pushes new homeowners to neighboring communities where housing prices are lower. Towns like Meridian have seen massive growth, but more recently, buyers have been pushed further out, to Nampa, Caldwell, Kuna and beyond, to find affordable homes.

This movement forces longer commutes, putting more traffic on already-packed roads and increasing the valley's pollution problem.

Lay said it also hurts employers' ability to attract and keep workers. "People that are going to qualify for this kind of housing are typically police, teachers, health-care workers, young professionals who are just starting out in the marketplace," he said. "They would like to stay in the area, but it's more and more difficult for people who are beginning a career to go out and buy a home and add that sort of stability to their lives and the community."

Now, CCDC, IHFA and a private developer are attempting a new project that all three groups hope could be a model for the future. It's based around the land where the old Boise Rescue Mission now stands on Front Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets.

It started more than a year ago when the City of Boise transferred ownership of a relatively small strip of land along Front Street to CCDC. That land borders a larger lot owned by area developer Clay Carley, who along with Gary Christensen, owns C-Squared.

Carley then approached CCDC about purchasing the land to fold into a larger project, which would include workforce housing units. At the same time, he was talking to representatives at IHFA to see what tools the organization had available to help him build a quality project but keep costs low enough to sell some units at more-affordable rates.

At that point, Carley and IHFA approached CCDC with a new idea. Under state law, land ownership can be transferred between public agencies. If CCDC and IHFA can hammer out a deal to transfer the land, Carley would be able to purchase it at a reduced cost directly from IHFA, using the money saved as a sort of informal subsidy to cut the overall cost of the project.

In the past, CCDC either sent out an invitation for proposals for a specific piece of land or waited until a developer proposed a project, but the land-transfer option has opened new doors for the organization. While Sheldon said CCDC hasn't approached a project like this before, staff and board members are excited about what opportunities it might bring.

"We don't have the expertise or resources for producing this kind of project," she said. "IHFA has that expertise and they have other tools ... They're envisioning a way to gather resources for public agencies, to get requests from developers for this sort of program. It gets the actual project built."

From Carley's perspective, the partnership offers a way to get a project on the ground while taking advantage of IHFA tools to smooth the way. While there are no regulations requiring the inclusion of workforce housing in new projects, Carley said it was part of the design from the beginning for one simple reason, "it's the right thing to do," he said.

"[The development] came to be because my partner and I realized that whatever we build, we want to build a community, as well as any building," Carley said.

Urban studies have shown the most sustainable communities are those with diversity across both age and income, he said. "Mixed communities are successful in other places, and they should be here in Boise."

Carley pointed to the ratio of workers to available housing in other developing Western cities. In Portland, that ratio is seven workers to every one unit of housing, while Denver has a ratio of 20 to one. In Boise it jumps to 43 to one.

"That means 42 workers are commuting into work," Carley said. "That's bad for the environment, bad for the employer."

As it currently stands, C-Squared's project calls for more than 100 residential units, with between 15 and 20 workforce housing units. They would range in size from 700 to 2,900 square feet, with the workforce component falling in the 700 to 1,100 square-foot area.

While sale prices are not yet set, Carley said the construction materialand amenities found in the workforce units would be the same as in the free-market units.

Plans also call for the development to be platinum-certified by the United States Green Building Council and use a combination of energy sources--possibly including solar and geothermal.

Carley said he would like to break ground on the project in September, but that all depends on agreements being finalized, first between CCDC and IHFA, and then between IHFA and C-Squared.

CCDC took the first step at its monthly board meeting on May 14, rescinding the original agreement with C-Squared, and allowing it to move forward with an agreement with IHFA. While details of any agreement between the agencies have yet to be worked out, Sheldon said certain requirements will have to be written in, including assurances that the development would comply with CCDC's urban renewal plan and would be completed within a specific time period.

Both CCDC and IHFA envision this program as a self-perpetuating one, in which funds donated by public agencies, developers and businesses would be used to help fund future projects. Hunter said there may be opportunities in the future for employers to make charitable donations to a workforce housing fund for a federal tax credit.

"The goal is not to help one household into a unit and sort of indirectly enrich them," he said.

Whatever form the program takes, Sheldon said it is important to put restrictions in place limiting the amount a property can be sold for, so units that start out as affordable workforce housing don't jump out of reach.

"It's irresponsible to put in an up-front subsidy and then let it go to whatever the market will support," she said. "We're not gaining any ground."

Most believe that such a program would also give developers incentives to include workforce housing in other projects. "There's an interest to make sure they have a mix, too," Sheldon said. "This is part of the market. There's a lot of people in it, and if they get priced out of the market place, the developer has less people to sell their product to."

Even the Neighborhood Housing Association is beginning to address the problem. The group has traditionally focused on federally subsidized projects, but its current one is designed as workforce housing. The development, on Grand Avenue between 14th and 15th streets, includes 20 townhouses priced between $197,000 and $325,000, an amount Lay admits is on the upper end of workforce housing.

One thing all the parties agree on is that this issue needs to be addressed now. "If the community doesn't begin to create some resources within it's boundaries, as time goes on, it begins to be more difficult to find those resources," Hunter said. "It can only help in long run."

For Kushlan, the good news lies in the fact that a number of groups are beginning to step up to do something. "There is a menu of [options], but it's not the sort of thing that is easily solved," he said. "It's not the sort of thing that is going to be solved by any one thing, or any one group ... It's going to take a combination."

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