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Compact, efficient building designs will help us handle Idaho’s growth

Scot Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth

Scot Oliver

Idaho is growing. Are we growing up? The U.S. Census reported that Idaho was the fastest growing state last year, at 2.2 percent. But Idaho’s nearly 37,000 new residents in 2017 aren’t many compared with the U.S. as a whole, which grew by 2.3 million in the same period. Texas alone adds more people in just over a month than Idaho does in a year.

However, the comparison is meaningless if you’re stuck in traffic, or trying to find an affordable place to live in Idaho’s growing urban areas. Nor does it help to know that housing is much costlier elsewhere. In a recent index, US News ranked Boise the 25th most affordable metropolitan area, with 26.22 percent of average income going to housing costs. (In the west, only Anchorage and Salt Lake City ranked better.)

We know these numbers are skewed. Few in Idaho’s workforce can find affordable housing (costs no higher than 30 percent of income) near their work. Many of us were fortunate to settle into our homes before the craziness began. Today there’s no way I could afford to buy the home I currently own, or for that matter any of my previous homes in Boise, Moscow or Grangeville. Forget Seattle or San Francisco. I don’t know how people do it.

This is partly an example of the free market at work: the demand for housing exceeds the supply, so the cost goes up as a result. The same thing happened in the mid-2000s, when Idaho was among the country’s leaders in housing demand and production. The Great Recession burst that bubble and Idaho was among the hardest hit. The market has caught up and theoretically should begin producing new homes to accommodate the new demand.

However, housing production is not an unfettered part of the free market. There are constraining factors: regulations, infrastructure, banks and neighbors, to name a few. The biggest constraint is land—we’re running out of it in the places where people most want to be. Property assessments show the greatest demand is in or near downtowns, where land prices are many times higher than elsewhere. The market actually is responding to the demand for more downtown housing in many Idaho cities, but only at the high end. The market simply can’t supply a range of housing in high-demand areas on its own. Subsidies help at the lowest part of the income spectrum, but the broad group in the middle doesn’t have affordable options.

The market needs help, but our tools are limited.

We could stop growing—then we wouldn’t need more houses. We could figuratively build a wall. If we stopped development, would people stop coming here? Not many: about 28 percent of last year’s new Idahoans were actually born here last year. Two-thirds migrated from other states; only 5.2 percent came from other countries. The long-term consequences of being unwelcoming will be worse than any problems we’re trying to fix.

The status quo growth pattern is also not a good choice. We have lost farms and rangeland at an alarming rate. It’s true that this land is relatively cheaper and easy to develop and that we’re blessed with enough water (for now) to continue building subdivisions for a while. But a number of factors limit this kind of development.

Foremost is the post-war promise that the car offers freedom and can easily connect homes with schools, shopping, jobs and other destinations. For a while this worked, when homes were only blocks away from other land uses. But as subdivisions spread, destinations become further away and more time is wasted in the car. This has terrible consequences on personal, environmental and economic health. We lose community spirit, productivity and freedom—things we value about Idaho. When we’re sitting in traffic our quality-of-life gauge is pegged at zero.

We can accommodate some of the demand here in the short term with current policies and comprehensive plans—if we stick to them. Adding garage apartments and other accessory homes, actually building to a zone’s allowed density and converting unused commercial development to a mix of uses are some of the easier strategies.

But eventually we have to grow up. The only sustainable solution to growth issues—in a democracy—is to encourage compact, efficient building designs in existing mixed-use neighborhoods. Where possible, let’s build up, not out, to maximize land value. We’ll have to help the market at times. We’ll have to welcome new neighbors and we may have to accept some change next to our back yards. And fortunately these changes do not lower our own property values—that’s not an issue.

Solving the nationwide affordability gap will be a whole lot harder. It includes addressing the exploding income-inequality gap. Passing real tax and benefits reforms that reward hard work as much as good luck. Planning for the coming waves of climate refugees displaced by rising sea levels, and feeding a planet on farmland that has been paved, burnt, flooded or desertified.

We need to recognize that we’re really all in each other’s back yard. That’s what a grown-up community is. We should have each other’s backs.

Scot Oliver is executive director of Idaho Smart Growth, a statewide nonprofit that helps communities work on growth and development issues.

About Scot Oliver