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Growing Pains: Considering Solutions For Growth, Affordability In Boise Metro

Darin Oswald
Idaho Statesman
In 2018, homeowners along Bogart Lane in Northwest Boise placed signs on their property opposing plans for more development in the area.


As we wrap up our "Growing Pains" series on growth and affordability in the Treasure Valley, we wanted look at some possible solutions to the issues we've covered. What solutions are out there to help folks dealing with skyrocketing home prices, lengthy commutes and traffic, rising property taxes, demands on government services and more? And if the valley continues on its current trajectory, what does the next 20 years look like?

Joining Idaho Matters to help us think through these questions are us live are Pofessor of Planning and Natural Resources at the University of Idaho Jaap Vos and Idaho Smart Growth Executive Director Scot Oliver.

This interview is the final part of our series called "Growing Pains." The series explores stories and issues surrounding the Treasure Valley's rapid growth and increasing unafforability. Subscribe to our podcast to hear every interview, and download the Boise State Public Radio app to send us a voice message using our Talk To Us feature.

Support for "Growing Pains" comes from Broadcast Society members Jennifer Dickey and Andy Huang.  Member support is what makes these interviews possible. Support this coverage here.


Read the full transcript here:

GEMMA GAUDETTE (host): This is Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette. As we wrap up our series 'Growing Pains' today, we wanted to end by looking at some possible solutions, if there are any, as well as where we go from here, if we continue on this same path.

Joining us live today are Jaap Vos, Professor of Planning and Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, and Scott Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth. Welcome, both of you.

ALL: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

GAUDETTE: So first off, I'm curious, when it comes to growth and the rapid growth that we have seen in the Treasure Valley, is this a train that's just going too fast and we cannot get off of? Or can we slow it down and find some workable solutions? And, Scott, I'll go to you first and then Jaap if you want to interject after Scott.

SCOTT OLIVER: That's a trick question, I say, Gemma. It is a train, but I don't think we can slow it down. I think not directly anyway. But I think the impacts of some of our actions may result in slowing it down eventually.

Let me just start with one thing that I thought maybe I could sneak in edgewise later, but I'm going to start with it right now. And that is -- and this is just me talking -- really the only way to deal with growth to slow it down is to stop having so many children. So think about that for a second.

GAUDETTE: Mm hmm. True, well, I've only got two and I'm done, so...

OLIVER: Yeah, well, you're just a little bit over the sustainability point, which I think is 1.9, which you can't really do.

GAUDETTE: But Scott, for a lot of people, especially in the Treasure Valley, when it comes to certain values that people hold, having less children is just not an option. Having fewer children is an option that they would not choose.

OLIVER: Well, let's look at the numbers of the growth that we're having right now, I don't have it in front of me, but I think children born in Idaho constitutes about a quarter of the growth. I mean that's not really the problem. The problem is people coming from somewhere else or coming back to Idaho. And you know, who can blame them, but we have to be realistic about the choices that we're making, especially as we grow.

GAUDETTE: Hmm. So Jaap, what are your thoughts on this when it comes to, you know, it's a train we're on, right? I mean, growth is happening. It's been happening rapidly in Idaho, in the Treasure Valley. I mean, for at least-- if I look at how long I've been here since 1999, the growth has not really ever slowed down. And so then what do we do in order to find solutions that really can change the trajectory of that train that we're on?

JAAP VOS: So Gemma, it's an interesting question and ask an academic who's probably going to give you a negative answer, right? Let me start with a negative answer to this. Right. So I think growth is unlikely to stop anytime soon. And I can really not think of any place in the country that has been really able to deal with all the consequences that growth has. And maybe Scott knows one, but I really can't. You know, I came from Florida. Florida has concurrency requirements, had one of the strongest growth management programs, it didn't stop growth and arguably it led to more urban sprawl. Portland established urban growth boundaries that worked, but led to real problems with affordability. So the real issue of this is that growth is occurring. And I think the one thing that we need to understand a little bit with growth and Scott started talking about children, all right, so you have two, I have one, so together we're fine right now.

But we have to understand what that growth is. Where is that growth coming from and why are people moving here? Are these people from California and other are escaping the fires or are these people coming from Texas or are these people coming from the West Coast? Why are they coming here? And then, you know, the other thing that we have to ask ourselves is what do they bring with them? You know, if this is somebody who is coming from California who just sold their home there and can now buy a big home here, but needs a job, that's different from a person who is retiring. Right. And they require different things. So the positive thing about this is if we start really thinking about who's coming here and what are the opportunities that these people bring, that's a particular group of people -- what opportunities do they bring? Do they bring an opportunity for public transit. Do they give an opportunity for additional businesses, job creation? So instead of thinking about all the problems, which I think we typically do when we talk about growth, let's start talking about opportunities that there are and how we can take advantage of those.

GAUDETTE: And Scott, what would be your thoughts on what Jaap just said?

OLIVER: Well, I love that Jaap is looking at it optimistically, and I think we have to and I think that growth is something that we have many of us have worked to encourage here in the Boise Metro for years. And so, you know, it comes with benefits. Much of our our economy is built on a consumer culture. And so, you know, growth follows that. So that part of it's good. It just means that at some point -- and here's the reality, I think, property tax relief that helps people who pay property taxes -- we all ultimately do -- you can nibble away at the edges. You can do growth, boundaries, whatever. But the bottom line is that there's only -- it's the classic real estate conundrum. Location, location, location. And if people want to be here, then we have to make room for them.

GAUDETTE: And I realize that property taxes are not in either of your wheelhouses and expertise. With that being said, though, I am curious about your thoughts, though, regarding wages, especially Jaap, when you talked about does someone move here from out of state and need a job? Right. And yes, maybe they've sold their house for a lot of money, but they still are not ready to retire.

When we look at that, I mean, starting in 2010, the median income for a family of four in Idaho was $55,700. This is according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Now it's grown to $67,300. So it's grown some. The minimum wage, though, remains that the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.

But then if we look at and -- I should have said, that wasn't the state median income, that was for Ada County.

Then if we look at Ada county's median income, as I mentioned, it increased 20% from 2010 to 2020, but home prices went up by 152% in that same time. So, when you when you just look at those numbers, I mean, this seems almost unfeasible for some people to ever be able to make a good living to be homeowners if we continue on this path in the Treasure Valley.

VOS: Yeah, you know, obviously, there's a big disconnect, right, between our wages and what it costs to live here, but I don't want to just raise it as an affordability issue or an income issue, it's so much more complicated. And I'll give you an example of something. So I came from Florida, I said that already. And in Florida, I had this really interesting thing. They were trying to make sure that you would not be pushed out of your houses when prices went up. They were basically dealing with the same issue that we're dealing withhere. So they had this thing called Save Our Homes and Save Our Homes meant that your property tax would only increase by 3%. So if your home's value went up with 10% or 15%, the amount of money that you are assessed over would only increase 3%. So it actually meant that my value of my house was limited to increasing 3% every year. The reality is, was that my house increased in value, probably by 20% every year. Now, that was wonderful, right? When you think about it, it means that I know what my property taxes is going to be a longer period of time and I was actually able to stay there. However, it also led to some really interesting side effects.

One of the impacts was that while I was paying $1500 in property taxes one year, my neighbor next to me who locked it, who moved in 10 years later, paid $5000 in property taxes for the exact same house, and he required the exact same amount of services that I did. So there was an inequity in that system. The other consequence as a planner that I had really had a problem with was I never moved out of my starter home because if I moved out of my starter home, I lost my stable home value, which all of a sudden if I would have gone to a slightly bigger home, which I really needed to do right, there needs to be some movement in that housing market to make that starter home available. It never became available. I lived there for 15 years and never was able to move out because my property taxes would have increased if I had moved somewhere else, because I would have lost our home's value. So I think these things are really complicated. And when I was listening to the previous section, I hear these things and what I really want us to think very carefully about what the consequences are of all these different things and how they are related to each other. And I'm obviously not an economist, so I should stop talking about this stuff.

GAUDETTE: No, I think that's a really good point. Scott, did you want to add on to any of that?

OLIVER: Yeah, just you know, it's all a matter of perspective. And your first guest in the series, Don Day pointed out that, you know, it's all relative. What we think of as extremely high here, and it is high relatively, is nothing compared to what some people are paying in California or other places. And then, you know, remember that in 1978, California passed a property tax relief bill that, you know, froze taxes just like what Jaap are just talking about in Florida. I mean, would it be that much worse if they had continued to increase property taxes? I don't know. But it's hard to imagine it being worse. 

GAUDETTE: I want to turn to traffic because there is a continuing source of controversy around the valley, right. Different cities wanting to do different things. For example, we had and Meridian Mayor Robert Simison on. And really things like walkability and bicycling are not a top priority. He said, you know, it's about moving traffic. You can say the exact opposite for the city of Boise. So, Scott, these cities literally run into each other. Can they have such differing views and still come up with a solution when it comes to traffic?

OLIVER: Probably not Gemma, but I listened to Robert Simison, and that's a job I wouldn't wish on anybody, but he seems to be doing pretty well. But he used the term connectivity a lot and he talked about building sidewalks and stuff like that. But, you know, connectivity in Meridian may be different from what it is in downtown Boise or even downtown Meridian. It  varies. But the fact is, if, like if Meridian is growing with over 4,000 people a year for the last 10 years and the whole valley's growing with over 1,100 people a month, connectivity has to sort of change. And I was looking at -- you had the gentleman from the Village of Meridian... 

GAUDETTE: Right, the general manager.

OLIVER: Yeah. And I can't -- I don't really -- it didn't seem like it fit in a series on growth or affordability. It seems to me the opposite of how you solve a growth and affordability issue in a growing valley. And what's cool is you can go to the Google Earth timeline thing and slide it back and forth. And right now you can look at the Village in Meridian, which is a shopping center, and it's surrounded by parking, by more parking than the buildings take up and you can look at that as -- they claim it's the busy intersection in the state.

GAUDETTE: So, Jaap, what are your thoughts on that? And I do need to wrap this up in about a minute.

VOS: All right. So let me try to do it quick. So to me, the thing is you have to redefine the problem. It's not about moving traffic. It's at best about moving people. And I actually think it's not about moving people. It's about connectivity, just like Scott says. Right. So you have to connect people with their jobs and the places they need to be. And that doesn't mean you have to build more roads. We just have to really rethink. And I think for myself, about COVID-19 and what I did to -- I didn't have to go very many places. We need to really think more about -- it's not about traffic. It's not about moving cars from one place to the other place. It is about how we connect people to the places that they need to be.

GAUDETTE: I want to thank both of you so much for your time and for making time for this.

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Hi! I’m Gemma Gaudette, the host of the award-winning show, Idaho Matters. During the day you’ll find me researching and writing about all the fascinating topics we tackle on our show. And of course, at noon, each weekday you’ll find me live behind the microphone as Idaho Matters airs.