Nicknamed the “city of trees,” Boise is an enigma in its approach to urbanism. A bike lane leads straight up to the steps of the state capital building, where a Republican majority legislature fills the benches and halls. Residents paddle kayaks and trout fish in the river running through heart of the city, not far from gritty Freak Alley with its provocative murals. Imposing stone churches and references to the city’s rich history of Basque culture juxtapose against western themed distilleries and restaurants serving up a multiplicity of dishes featuring Idaho’s famous potatoes.
Boise is also a city on the cusp of major change. While visible signs of growth may not be as evident as in other fast-growing western metros, the increase in population and influx of newcomers is beginning to make its stamp. Increases in density and challenges in housing affordability, as well as a desire to continue to attract new businesses and high income earning professionals, makes Boise an interesting urbanist case study.
Fast growth, rising housing prices
Recently, Boise was placed at the top of a list “mountain lion” cities, by Fullstack Economics, which theorizes that growth in these cities has been fueled by a spillover effect from coastal cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles. According to Fullstack, the appeal of these cities is rooted in their distinctive natural settings, access to universities, burgeoning tech sectors, and (relatively) affordable housing prices.
However, the affordability edge appears to be on the way out for Boise, which was named as the nation’s most overvalued housing market in a recent study completed by Florida Atlantic University (FAU) using open source data. According to local media, Boise may have reached a tipping point in regards to its affordability in comparison to other other western cities. Boise, was also far from the only mountain lion city on the list, with Austin, Ogden, Provo, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Spokane all included in the FAU study’s top ten rankings.
Boise’s real estate industry, however, remains eager to market the city to outsiders. A realty storefront located in the baggage claim of Boise’s airport even makes it possible for new arrivals to begin their property search before even leaving the airport.
The real estate spectacle, most obviously marketed to Californians, runs contrary to efforts by the City of Boise to engage in the development of affordable housing for low-income residents. The City is currently in the process of identifying surplus properties it owns for future affordable housing development, a common strategy in cities where land values have risen to a premium.
Boise officials have also set the goal of building 1,250 new homes and preserving another 1,000 homes affordable to residents earning less than 60% of Area Median Income (AMI) in the next five years. Unfortunately this amount may prove a drop in the bucket relative the Boise’s affordable housing needs; city projections cite 27,000 new housing units (affordable and market rate) as the amount necessary to insert into the market over the next ten years to manage the current housing affordability crisis.
Downtown density and placemaking
For a city most defined by its proximity wide open spaces, notably the nearby Boise Mountains, density has not always been valued in Boise. Yet a visible shift is present in the Downtown core where residential and mixed-use developments are on the rise. According to the Boise Development Tracker, more construction cranes will be dotting the city’s skyline in the near future. Examples of already permitted projects include a 19 story apartment building with retail on ground level, five story residential building with retail space and a public plaza, and a 35-unit condo development near the riverfront. All of these projects — as well as nearly a dozen more — are posed to significantly increase density in Downtown Boise.