State of the City speech reprises Bieter’s greatest hits

Downtown Boise. File photo

Facing competition in November for what would be his fifth term as mayor, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter’s annual State of the City message offered some new initiatives but primarily a reminder of the programs he had already provided.

The speech — presented Sept. 18 at the Egyptian Theatre — was thinner on plans than last year’s, which proposed affordable housing and a citizen’s initiative for local option taxing authority.

A number of the proposals from last year have faced criticism, such as pushback against what was seen as a too-expensive replacement for the main library.

photo of dave bieter
Boise Mayor David H. Bieter

Bieter’s 2019 speech followed the themes of safety, activity, creativity and kindness and a number of them were followups to earlier successes.

The second segment, activity, primarily had to do with outdoor pursuits. Bieter touched upon the second phase of the Whitewater Park, the expansion of the zoo and a new dog park, as well as the city’s 15 existing parks.

The third segment, creativity, covered a wide variety of components, ranging from transportation to the environment. Several environmental proposals were mentioned, such as changing the name of the Boise Watershed to the Boise Climate and Water Science Center and creating a program called Boise Climate Now, though it wasn’t clear what the program would include.

Similarly, Bieter discussed a program to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips, which currently comprise 81% of vehicle trips, by 10% by 2029, as well as continuing to critique the Idaho Legislature for not giving most Idaho cities local option taxing authority, which could fund public transit.

That segment also included the few references to business in the speech, including mentioning Blue Valley, an industrial complex near the airport; the Gateway East urban renewal district that recently drew Verde Fulfillment; Ravenswood Solutions; and StageDotO, a capital management company that is bringing $50 million in investment to Boise.

Following up on an April Boise City Council vote to move the city’s electricity to 100% renewable sources by 2035, Bieter said the city would be purchasing five electric garbage trucks, as well as eight more electric buses. He also plans to meet with businesses later this month to develop plans to reduce plastic waste, much like a similar program for consumers earlier this year.

The homeless – particularly homeless families – attracted particular attention. Boise has 166 homeless families, and it would take $6,000 per family to house them, Bieter said, though he didn’t provide the source for the figures. But those were achievable figures, he insisted. Other programs for the homeless that drew mention included Valor Pointe, a project for homeless veterans, and Our Path Home, a project intended for the chronically homeless.

Bieter also discussed one of the programs from last year’s speech, a housing land trust of $20 million to preserve and protect housing affordability that hasn’t made much progress since then. While not committing to a specific amount this year, Bieter said he planned to meet with a number of the city’s banks, which he didn’t name, to come up with a plan to fund the program.

The fourth aspect, kindness, was originally brought up during last year’s State of the City speech. In the past year, Bieter created a number of programs to promote the city’s reputation for kindness. Those programs have had an effect, he said, noting that people ranging from singer Garth Brooks to new Boise State President Marlene Tromp have alluded to it.

Some of Bieter’s criticized proposals weren’t mentioned, such as the Boise Main Library, the Boise Sports Park and his recent proposal to limit short-term rentals such as Airbnb.

Bieter also didn’t directly address his mayoral campaign, nor that of opponent Lauren McLean, who serves as Boise City Council president. He did say, when people ask him why he wants to continue, that being mayor is the “greatest job in the world.”

A word with Boise mayoral challenger Lauren McLean

Lauren McLean

Boise City Council President Lauren McLean raised some eyebrows in May when she announced that she was challenging four-term Boise mayor Dave Bieter for the 2020 election. McLean was appointed by Bieter, with Council approval, in 2010.

But McLean argues that it is time for a mayor who can take a fresh look at Boise’s challenges, particularly related to growth.

We sat down with McLean to learn more about her campaign and what it could mean for business.

What led you to decide to run for mayor?

In listening session after listening session across the city in April, I was hearing so many concerns and worries about the rising cost of living, the lack of affordable housing, an increase in traffic and congestion with no clear plan with how to deal with it, and an overall concern that citizens were feeling left out of the process and shut out of the decisionmaking in decisions about our future. So when faced with all this, I felt it was time for someone with new energy and new ideas and a proven ability to bring people together to step up and offer solutions.

Couldn’t you do that from your position as Council member and president?

As mayor, you set the tone and agenda for the city, and the Council often responds to that. We need a leader who will build new relationships, walk away from old grudges that have existed for too long and engage the public in authentic ways around a discussion about our future, and that’s what the mayor’s office should do and can do.

What led you to run now instead of waiting for an open seat?

Sixteen years is a long time for someone to be in office. With the weight of the problems that have grown in Boise, sitting back and waiting another four years wasn’t the right thing for our residents. So I made the tough decision, rather late, to jump in. I saw a need and decided it was time.

How’s it working out for you?

We have over 260 volunteers. We have held over 30 big Boise listening tours that attract, on any given day, at least 20 people and sometimes 50 to 60 people. Young people are jumping in and getting engaged. People are talking about the future of our community. It’s been a humbling experience thus far.

photo of lauren mclean
Lauren McLean, her staff and her dog, Maya. McLean is challenging four-term Boise mayor Dave Bieter in 2020. Photo by Sharon Fisher

You have a background ranging from conservation and open space to urban renewal. What will be your priorities?

My platform is online. My priority will be to restart relationships, with what is truly a new generation of leaders throughout this valley to come up with an actionable plan for public transportation. And to focus on more, new, bolder affordable housing solutions. But of course, with my background in conservation, and a long history in advocating for climate-friendly policies that build economies, issues of conservation, clean water, open spaces and clean energy will run throughout. In a 21st-century city, it’s imperative that we seek the opportunities that innovation around climate could bring us. That impacts the affordability of homes, everyone’s pocketbooks and economic opportunity in the long run.

What’s your plan for business?

The Brookings Institution report on Boise provided a great roadmap for building a strong 21st-century economy that allows everyone to participate in our valley’s prosperity. I met with the researchers and the takeaways were clear: We need to work as a region, to invest in affordable housing, transportation, child care, pre-K and education through college and beyond to create opportunity for our residents, while focusing on supporting and building homegrown businesses, and being strategic in the companies we recruit and insisting that they are committed to investing in our people, rather than seeking handouts and cheap labor.

Aren’t some of these items, like transportation and education, handled by the state?

The importance then reflects back on a mayor convening leaders from various sectors to have those conversations. Those topics can be addressed locally and regionally through partnerships with the school district, bringing pre-K to all neighborhood schools, through developing a shared vision around how we move residents from their homes to their jobs. The stronger the relationships that are built, the more likely it is that a vision can be shared and solutions dreamed up. With that partnership regionally, I know that we can work with the state to partner as well.

How would you fund this?

The decisions we make from a budget perspective reflect our values. The city has been a partner with local pre-K initiatives. It’s necessary now to have a conversation about how we can afford to provide that for all neighborhoods. Results are clear that having access to good pre-K puts you on a path toward prosperity. For transportation and other issues, it’s a conversation we all have to have. For 16 years, leaders have been fighting for local option tax with no results. So now it’s most important that, regionally, we agree on what we need and then have the conversation about the various ways that funding could make that a reality.

Transportation, housing, environment Boise’s most pressing issues, Bieter says

Held in the cavernous Morrison Center, Mayor David Bieter’s annual State of the City speech was full by the time he started. Photo courtesy of the City of Boise.

Boise’s three major problems are transportation, housing and the environment, said Mayor David Bieter during his State of the City message on Sept. 12, and he had proposals to address each of them. But more than anything else, he wanted to ensure that Boise remains kind, he said, speaking at the Morrison Center on the Boise State University campus.

photo of dave bieter
Boise Mayor David H. Bieter

“In the transportation future we imagine, what do we see?” Bieter asked. “Don’t we all see clean, convenient transit?” But Boise, and the rest of Idaho, are stymied due to a lack of funding, he said. Idaho is one of the few states that doesn’t provide for local option taxing authority, which allows citizens of a region to vote to tax themselves to raise money for funds for items such as transit.

Using as a model the proposals on the November ballot to expand Medicaid and to allow historic horse racing terminals at racetracks, Bieter proposed a citizen initiative. “We should band together statewide and get the signatures for a local option in 2020,” he said. “We need to start this November. Transit needs funding, and local option is the way.”

For housing, Bieter noted that Boise is predicted to gain 50,000 new residents over the next 20 years, which would require 20,000 new housing units, or about 1,000 a year. He proposed five ways to increase Boise housing:

  • Establish a housing land trust of $20 million to preserve and protect housing affordability.
  • Offer incentives to developers, similar to the Downtown Housing Incentive Program, to develop rental housing that is affordable to 80 percent or below the median household income.
  • Leverage public and private land to create mixed use, mixed-income projects.
  • Change zoning and land use rules in what appeared to be a call to increase density.
  • Work with Capital City Development Corp. and other organizations to develop housing projects within urban renewal districts.

“Given the rapid growth in housing prices and rents over the past few years, IHFA welcomes the opportunity to partner with the City of Boise to expand affordable housing opportunities,” said Gerald Hunter, president of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, a Boise-based organization that promotes affordable housing. “Without these critical public-private partnerships, our communities will simply not be successful in addressing our future workforce housing needs.”

For the environment, Bieter called for no longer annexing or rezoning property to allow new development in the Foothills, after the approximately 400 lots that had already been allowed under existing zoning. “Instead, new development should go to those areas called for under Blueprint Boise, along transit corridors and through infill,” he said.

In addition, Bieter said that the city of Boise’s facilities and operations would be 100 percent powered by renewable electricity by the year 2030. He did not provide specifics about how this would occur or what types of electricity he would consider renewable. Boise is already the only city in the country that powers some of its city buildings through geothermal energy, while Idaho Power reports that more than half of its electricity comes from renewable sources such as water, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass.

Bieter also exhorted Boise citizens to continue to be kind, noting that he was overwhelmed by the support city residents offered to the victims and their families after a mass stabbing in July. He also asked that people say hello to strangers and let people into traffic. With that level of kindness, Boise would truly be the most livable city in the country, he said.

In addition, Bieter praised his administration for opening 15 parks, reserves and golf courses, four branch libraries, three community centers, eight new or remodeled fire stations, and a number of other city amenities since 2004. “Many of these projects had been planned for decades and backlogged, waiting for years to be completed,” he said.

He also talked about potential projects such as the new Boise Main Library and the Boise Sports Park.

Before and after his speech, several Boise artists performed, including musician Eilen Jewell, dance troupe LED and musical group Afrosonics.

This story was edited on September 17 to include comment from IHFA.

Panel: Affordable housing is critical to economic development

A multifamily housing development under construction west of downtown Boise.
A multifamily housing development under construction west of downtown Boise. Economist Elliot Eisenberg, a panelist at the Conference on Housing and Economic Development in Boise March 5, said housing prices are rising because supply isn’t meeting demand. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen.

Much-needed workers are turning down jobs in Burley because they can’t find affordable housing nearby, says Jan Rogers, chief executive officer for Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho.

Rogers spoke at the Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s Conference on Housing and Economic Development in Boise on March 5.

“When does housing become part of the strategy of economic development?” asked Rogers. “It needs to be.

The lack of affordable workforce housing “snuck up on us,” she said.

The problem of affordable housing is a national one. Housing prices are going up nationwide, not due to a bubble but due to simple supply and demand, said Elliott Eisenberg, an economist who also spoke at the conference.

Eisenberg said builders can’t make houses fast enough and cheaply enough because of the costs of regulation, land, and building material. Moreover, there aren’t enough skilled workers, and homebuilding hasn’t seen any improvements in productivity since 1947, he said.

Jan Rogers
Jan Rogers

Meanwhile, people are moving into Idaho at an unprecedented rate. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said he expects to see 50,000 new Boiseans in the next 20 years. That means 20,000 new homes, or 1,000 new housing units a year, he noted. And that’s required some hard decisions on the part of the Boise City Council, in the face of pushback from Ada County residents who found a city growing up around them.

Bieter’s had to tell residents of Northwest Boise, for example — just two miles from downtown — that they don’t live in the country anymore. “The only thing people hate more than sprawl is density,” he joked, noting that Boise now has an average of almost seven units per acre.

Moreover, Idaho can’t count on the federal government to help, Bieter said. In 1975, Boise got $5 million per year to help build housing — the equivalent of $23 million today. Now, however, Boise gets just $1.2 million a year, he said.

Isaac Chavez
Isaac Chavez

Investing in affordable housing also means investing in the city amenities that go with them, especially when they move from other cities, said Isaac Chavez, chief executive officer for the Idaho Realtors.”They are going to demand them,” he said of amenities such as bike lanes. “We need to balance NIMBY [not in my back yard] with the needs of the new residents.”

Idaho has 71.1 percent home ownership, compared with 63.7 percent nationwide, said Chavez. However, the percentage is lower among African-Americans — 41 percent — and Hispanics, the fastest-growing group in Idaho — 47.7 percent, he said. Part of the problem is coming up with the down payment, he said. To help deal with that aspect, the Idaho Realtors plan to bring a bill to the next legislative session to help people build a savings account for a down payment tax-free, he said, describing it as a 529 plan for a down payment.

With developments such as design review, Boise is starting to figure out a better way to build dense affordable housing than the “skinny, crappy houses” of a few years ago, Bieter said, such as partnering with private enterprise and philanthropy organizations.

“It’s going to take a barn-raising, but there is reason for optimism with government and philanthropy working together,” Bieter said.