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Solving Idaho’s affordable housing puzzle with partnerships

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Bart Cochran

Affordable housing is a water-cooler topic these days. Mostly because this issue affects us all — whether you are struggling with rising housing costs or you know someone who is, it is not uncommon for this issue to touch most all lives. 

As the founder and executive director of an affordable housing nonprofit, I am often asked how has both a rapidly appreciating real estate market and COVID-19 affected the work we do and those with whom we work.  Forgive my flippant response, but honestly, it has affected every aspect.  

Every day, my team and I are plodding through the floodwaters of an affordable housing crisis whose tide has only risen with the complications of steadily increasing housing prices, inbound migration and very limited housing inventory.  At the time of publication, for example, we will have put two more units of affordable housing on the rental market in Nampa, receiving more interest than we can effectively place.

This challenge is not new.  In 2015, a housing study done by the City of Boise identified an unmet need of over 8,000 units of affordable housing in just Boise alone. That was 2015, before Boise was listed over and over as a top destination and before double-digit appreciation was a norm. To put a number to housing creation, in a good year, affordable housing providers will produce between 200-300 new units in Boise, far from enough to catch up.

What often goes overlooked is that this target audience of affordable housing users makes up one-third of all households in Boise.  This is a family of four, making $59,850 per year or less (80% of area median income).  Except for dedicated affordable housing properties, simply put, for this segment of the market, housing is unaffordable.  Add in rising rents and joblessness due to a global pandemic and you’ve got a recipe for housing instability. 

After I’ve thoroughly illustrated the hopelessness of the situation, this is when the conversation usually takes a turn.  Well, what can we do? 

One way of looking at the solution is like comparing the affordable housing crisis to a puzzle. We need corner pieces, edge pieces and middle pieces. We happen to be a middle piece … a rallying point for stakeholders coming from different directions and different sectors.

Let’s extend the analogy. Consider a cross-sector approach in the private and public space. One of our larger housing solutions is creating the area’s first housing land trust through partnerships with organizations such as Saint Alphonsus Health System, NewWest Community Capital, Idaho Housing and Finance Association and Darkhorse Development, a private land developer. The land trust model itself is a powerful housing strategy that creates and preserves affordable housing homeownership opportunities perpetually.  

Solutions like these are key because only a single public investment is required to provide a permanent solution.  In other words, we invest today to create affordable housing now and generations to come.  

LEAP hopes to inspire other cross-sector stakeholders, such as faith communities, municipalities and employers, to consider their role.  What if that underused softball field or that gravel overflow parking lot was considered an opportunity for housing? Could it be that employers offer a path of hope for homeownership through credit counseling classes or down payment savings programs?

LEAP is finding a key niche in coming alongside would-be community partners to provide the technical expertise to make housing happen.  Stakeholders can look to LEAP to partner together to solve this puzzle.  

In the volatile times that we find ourselves in, who can we look to as role models? Has our community responded well? If these rising floodwaters are stopped, they will be stopped by ordinary people filling sandbags at the levy.

We have seen an outpouring of support from individuals to ensure resources are available for fellow community members vulnerable to foreclosures and evictions. Organizations like Jesse Tree and the Idaho Housing and Finance Association are among those leading the charge, and are true champions for our neighborhoods.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress created a backstop that is more robust than our community resources, with the moratorium on evictions. What will happen when that backstop is gone? We cannot be content in our work until we ensure all Idahoans, especially renters in multifamily housing, have safe, stable and affordable housing.

We can build upon the fantastic success of the community’s response. The community response gives us hope, and that is why we invite you to use your puzzle piece to help get it done.

We know safe, stable and affordable housing has a broad range of impacts, economic, health and education outcomes. It’s vital to urgently deal with the issues we face while we have time.

Housing is a challenge, and always has been. You can be a piece of the housing solutions puzzle. Our success as a community and as a state is reliant on all of us contributing our individual strengths to create a sum that is greater than the parts. It just takes one puzzle piece at a time.  Will you be a part of the solution? 

Bart Cochran is founder and executive director of LEAP Housing Solutions, a Boise-based nonprofit that creates solutions across a portion of the housing spectrum, ranging from short-term rentals to homeownership and everything in-between.

About Bart Cochran

One comment

  1. Inspiring article bart! How can local small business get involved? We would love to support the effort of helping families find homes.