Housing First (and Foremost) 

Developers want to bring Housing First to this site near Fairview Avenue and 23rd Street.

Kelsey Hawes

Developers want to bring Housing First to this site near Fairview Avenue and 23rd Street.

To be clear, the program is called Housing "First," not Housing "Only."

"It doesn't do you any good to have a building for housing if you don't have services," said city of Boise spokesman Mike Journee. "Conversely, it doesn't do you any good to have the services if you don't have a building."

What's more, Housing First, the Treasure Valley's most ambitious effort to date to combat homelessness, is not a Boise "only" initiative.

"On a personal level, this is the most complicated thing I've ever worked on," said Diana Lachiondo who, as director of Community Partnerships for the city, has shepherded her share of complicated initiatives. "From a project level, Housing First is unique in the number of different entities that had to align."

Those entities include Ada County, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, and the Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's health systems. Together, they announced this week the Housing First effort had reached a "critical milestone," pointing to a possible 2017 start for the program that would include a single-site residence for up to 40 homeless individuals and/or families, complete with supportive services including health care, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and even financial counseling. In particular, Housing First will concentrate on those people who are considered Treasure Valley's chronically homeless—meaning they either have a disabling condition, have been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

While community leaders say Housing First is a proven model in other U.S. cities, it is still unchartered territory for the Treasure Valley.

"We've never done this before," said Lachiondo. "We set out a vision last February, but the reality was never a given."

Lachiondo's boss, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, stood before an audience Feb. 9 and detailed the plan to many who would become partners in the endeavor. At the time, he described it as a two-pronged approach to fighting homelessness: a permanent housing solution for the chronically homeless along with so-called "wrap around" services, i.e. health care and counseling.

"Creating Housing First options is an investment in breaking this reactive cycle and a step toward proactive efforts that will save money and lives," said Bieter.

That amount of money involved is substantial. Bieter was armed with a just-finished study compiled by Boise State University analyst Vanessa Fry, which revealed Treasure Valley costs—including jail, court and medical expenses—for the chronically homeless topped $5.3 million annually. Compare that, the study concluded, to the approximate $1.6 million in annual expenses for a proposed Housing First effort.

"We're a very compassionate, generous community, and peop le understand the moral case for this," said Lachiondo. "But the fiscal case, I believe, is what has gotten us to where we are today."

The city of Boise has committed to $1 million, along with $500,000 and $5.8 million of low-income housing tax incentives from the IHFA, to fund what will be called the "New Path Community Housing" project, to be built on what is currently a vacant lot on Fairview Avenue and 23rd Street.

"It's not as if we said we wanted that particular parcel of land," said Lachiondo. "We put out a request for proposal, but it would be up to a proposed developer to identify a possible site. And the developer we chose now owns that parcel."

The developer is Boise Pacific NIHC Associates, a joint venture whose principal partners have more than four decades of experience in affordable housing projects across the U.S. If all goes as planned, the developers will submit to a series of planning and zoning and design review hearings at Boise City Hall.

"It's really important that citizens will have their say on this project," said Lachiondo.

As for the supportive services costs, Ada County has contributed $250,000, Saint Al's and St. Luke's have each kicked in $100,000, and $25,000 in contributions have come from the United Way of the Treasure Valley and the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation.

"And right now, Ada County is right in the middle of negotiating with Terry Reilly Health Services to help make those supportive services happen," said Journee. "If all goes as planned, we'll break ground on the building next spring and the supportive services will be in place by the time we open. Who knows? By this time next year, we may be ready to go."


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