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Meridian, Nampa at crossroads of housing growth

As places outside Boise aim to become full-service cities where people can live and work without needing to travel elsewhere, the demand for more housing grows.
Credit: Jake King/The Idaho Press
A construction worker seen working on a house on Friday, April 16, 2021.

MERIDIAN, Idaho — Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Idaho Press.

One of the best parts of Rodney Cook’s day is also one of the hardest.

After his shift as a school bus driver, he meets up with his kids, hugs them and talks about how their day has been. They ask him, too. He responds that it’s been good. But in the back of his mind, he knows it could have been better.

Even while he’s driving the bus and making $14.25 an hour, Cook, a 46-year-old single father, spends a lot of his energy thinking about his housing situation. And second-guessing himself.

“What do I got to do now?” Cook constantly asks himself while thinking about his five kids, ages 8 to 16.

“How can I do this?”

“What can I do now to better our situation?”

Two years ago, Cook moved to Nampa from Tennessee. His truck broke down here, he knew some friends in the area and figured there were enough open jobs available to entice him to stay. For months, he and his family have been living in the Salvation Army’s Community Family Shelter in Nampa. Two of his kids have epilepsy. He makes sure to take them to their doctor appointments.

“I'm not some guy out doing drugs and partying or drinking or anything like that,” Cook said. “I'm just a guy who's working like everyone else and I'm still struggling.”

In the past five years, more than 43,000 people have moved into Nampa and Meridian, based on Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS) population estimates. The fast-growing populations have coincided with skyrocketing single-family home prices. As these places outside Boise aim to become full-service cities where people can live and work without needing to travel elsewhere, the demand for more housing opportunities has grown.

Experts in city planning believe diverse housing options beyond single-family homes are vital. But residents often push back on apartments being built in their neighborhoods. Elected officials are tasked with making decisions on these topics. As the housing crisis festers, Nampa and Meridian are at a crossroads.

RELATED: No small potatoes: How Boise's housing market compares to the biggest cities in the West

“My concern is where are we going to house people in our communities who really are the infrastructure of our economy?” Nampa city councilwoman Jean Mutchie said. 

Cook quickly realized Nampa is a place he wants to be. When his kids struggled in school, teachers supported them with individual attention. That might not have happened in Tennessee, he said. Cook complimented Nampa teachers’ kindness. He wants his kids to receive the best education they can.

Cook also embraces his job and has learned of the difference he could make in people’s lives. He frequently drives special education students and takes pride in brightening their day.

He’s built relationships with students strong enough that he’s attended their graduations. He relishes that feeling of importance — that feeling of being a part of something.

All Cook wants is to support his family. Sometimes he feels demoralized when he struggles to find a place to live. The stay at the Salvation Army can’t last forever. At some point, he’ll have to come up with another option.

“I’m not going to give up,” Cook said.

When conversations around housing arise, Cook wants his neighbors to know homelessness issues are already prevalent. He spoke at a June 7 Nampa City Council meeting in support of an affordable housing apartment complex. The councilmembers, outside of Mutchie, voted to deny the proposal after loads of opposition from potential future neighbors.

“I'm amazed that when it comes to a community, that people would rather worry about traffic and stuff like that instead of helping children have a place to live or families that are out there really doing some good,” Cook told the Idaho Press. “I drive around most of these guys' kids all day long. To not be (included) is kind of frustrating.”

Credit: Jake King/Idaho Press
Construction nears completion on a multi-use development in downtown Meridian on Thursday, August 4, 2021. The development will house residential tenants, restaurants and office space.

PLANNING THE FUTURE

Many of those looking for apartments in the Treasure Valley this year has had slim options to choose from. The multifamily vacancy rate at the end of March in Ada County was 0.53% and in Canyon County was 0.39%, according to the commercial real estate group Colliers International and the National Association of Residential Property Managers.

There are more options for those not looking for apartments. In Meridian and Nampa, far more single-family homes were approved between 2016 and 2021 than multifamily homes.

Nampa issued permits for 5,478 single-family dwellings and 291 multifamily dwellings in those five years, according to its building department.

Meridian approved close to 10,000 single-family homes and close to 4,000 multifamily units in the same time period, according to data provided by the city of Meridian.

It’s not atypical to have more single family than multifamily, Meridian Planning Division Manager Caleb Hood said. But just because there’s multifamily doesn’t mean the units are affordable. Some apartment rents are more than a typical mortgage, he said.

“I can’t afford the rents to live in some of these multifamily projects,” Hood said.

At the end of March, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Ada County was $1,187 and $1,049 in Canyon County, according to Colliers International and the National Association of Residential Property Managers.

Much of the blame is on the market, Hood said, because the government doesn’t set the prices.

But residents' complaints can have an impact on planning. Apartments located near jobs, shopping, schools or transit lines don’t require as much infrastructure and services, COMPASS Principal Planner Carl Miller said.

“(If you) put it somewhere where neighbors won't complain, oftentimes, those are locations where they're not served by schools and transit,” Miller said. “So you're really just busing in kids, or they can't walk to the neighborhood school.”

When neighbors aren’t at city government meetings to complain, it’s easier to get a project approved, Miller said. As a result, developers might be more inclined to go through the more consistent single-family project process.

“A lot of times multifamily, you have neighborhood opposition, which is fine,” Miller said. “We want to balance property rights, with new development. But it does slow down the process and there's less reliability for developers and so they just don't know by the end of the day, at the end of the process, if it'll be approved or not.”

Pushback scaring off developers could exacerbate the gap between multifamily and single-family housing.

Diversity in housing is “really important,” Nampa Planning and Zoning Director Rodney Ashby said. The proximity of homes to a commercial development affects the development's success. More people means more support for nearby businesses. Public transportation also is better served by multifamily, he said.

“It's difficult to recruit businesses here because of the housing situation,” Ashby said. “Where can their workers find housing that's affordable? So that's absolutely an issue and it relates to economic development directly.”

The city has to see some developments that address people’s concerns, he said. Then there would be a reference point. Ashby also said it’s important to keep neighborhoods consistent with what people expected when they moved there.

And whether existing infrastructure can handle the extra people and extra traffic, “those are valid concerns,” Ashby said.

NEIGHBORS PUSH BACK

This spring at a Meridian City Council meeting, residents stood up one after another to voice concerns about townhouse rentals in an area previously planned to just have commercial buildings.

“I really am concerned about the traffic,” said Carol Ogburn, who noted at the podium she moved to Meridian a year ago. “I know twice in the past week, I have gone out to Overland and there has been traffic to the west all the way to the stoplight at Cloverdale, backed up. And that’s just recently and this would be a lot more traffic.”

Many in opposition expressed a desire for just commercial businesses. One older woman said she moved to what she thought would be a quiet neighborhood. The development would make things busy, she added, addressing the council.

One man originally from Illinois spoke about kids having to walk to a playground on his side of the neighborhood.

“My main concern is I am backed right up to whatever they’re going to build there,” Jan Nye said. “Through my bedroom window I already see the one light coming from previous apartments.”

But the Meridian City Council voted to approve the applications, for a conditional-use permit and a development agreement modification.

Other developments, such as a proposed three-story apartment building in Nampa, haven’t been so lucky. The Nampa City Council voted to deny the applicant in March after neighbors expressed issues with the buildings' height, traffic and concerns about apartments not being good for the neighborhood.

When neighbors complain, common refrains are fears about property values or the people moving into multifamily housing. The two aforementioned council meetings exemplify the recurring conflicts elected officials face.

Some neighbors might worry about increased density, traffic or more demands on services and schools, Boise State University School of Public Service Associate Professor Krista Paulsen said.

“When you talk about bringing in multifamily development that is affordable, whether that is workforce housing, whether it’s a mix of market rate and affordable or subsidized units, then you get a different set of concerns that often has to do with worries that this might diminish property values or introduce crime into a neighborhood,” Paulsen said. “That’s not entirely accurate.”

A Trulia study in 2016 showed low-income housing in the nation’s 20 least affordable markets had no impact on home values. In Denver, low-income housing projects had a positive effect. But there were exceptions: Low-income housing projects in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, had a negative effect on home values.

Credit: Jake King/Idaho Press
Workers prepare a vacant lot for new construction adjacent to newly constructed apartment homes in Nampa on Thursday, August 4, 2021.

Paulsen added studies have shown in many cases affordable housing or multifamily either have no effect or a positive effect on property values. Some studies show small negative effects, she said, but those depend on a development’s design and management.

“In the Treasure Valley right now, the unavoidable issue is housing and particularly housing that’s accessible to folks who are working households and families,” Paulsen said. “So if a city simply grows by adding housing that’s really at the top end, then you run into a problem.”

WALKING THE LINE

Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling has three children who are all married and live on their own. Kling, 63, has 10 grandchildren. She and her husband live in a townhome. “I absolutely love it,” Kling said.

She misses having the space to host everyone and for people to play in the backyard. But with an empty nest and a busy workload as mayor, the smaller home fits better.

Kling is proof of someone who, at different stages in life, might prefer something other than a single-family home.

"Overall, a well-done townhome community next to single family does not reduce the value or in any way diminish the value of that subdivision and that housing next to it,” Kling said. “However, getting people to believe that is a different thing. And our staff actually has shared that. I think I need to continually encourage staff to please make sure they speak up."

This is the challenge Kling, and other elected officials, face regularly. She doesn’t believe the city could stop growth because otherwise home prices would soar even higher, she said. Building is a critical way to address the shortage of available homes.

Kling also believes in the value of homeownership. She constantly circles back to the motto of wanting Nampa to be a place where people can prosper. Creating opportunities for people to build equity is key. But that also means there’s room for more variety in the housing stock.

"I think it's very important that if we want to be a full-service community where people live, work and play, we need to provide the diversity of housing that the people need in order to do so,” Kling said. “To me, that's a very high priority."

Mutchie, the Nampa councilwoman, is a community health manager at St. Luke’s Health System. She mentioned how people in her field discuss housing as health care. St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus Health System have increasingly become involved in affordable housing developments in recent years. Those are the types of public-private partnerships she thinks could make a difference.

Mutchie wants to continually have conversations about housing. She acknowledged the situation is tricky, but more conversations could lead to more creative ideas.

“I think the role the city council can play is to try to really listen,” Mutchie said.

Sixteen years after Mutchie bought her home in 2005, she estimates it’s worth about triple the price she bought it at based on the price of nearby homes in her neighborhood.

“I can’t even imagine,” Mutchie said while thinking about her 14-year-old daughter who may someday be interested in buying a home for the first time.

Mutchie also mentioned people such as teachers, firefighters, police officers and service workers. Bus drivers fall in the same category. As housing prices climb and wages stagnate, a gap continues to widen.

“The landscape is just really challenging for people who are looking for what used to be considered entry-level home prices,” Mutchie said. “They just don't exist anymore in that same context.”

Meridian City Council President Treg Bernt, who previously served on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, also recognizes the line elected officials must walk.

He wants to respect property rights while maintaining open spaces. He understands growth is inevitable while considering how buildings could expand upward. He hears complaints while trying to follow the city’s comprehensive plan.

If the plans are followed appropriately, and development happens in places better suited for it, Bernt believes residents will benefit.

“A lot of growth is happening in our city right now, has been for at least since I was elected almost four years ago,” Bernt said. “Hasn’t really stopped. Not sure when it’s going to.”

SEARCH FOR STABILITY

When Cook’s children were born and when he was with their mother, he also had a perception of the homeless population. Why don’t they just get a job, he used to think.

“I’m guilty of it myself,” Cook said.

He’s since learned it’s not that simple. In his situation, he has a job and still struggles to make ends meet.

While access to jobs helped draw Cook to the area in 2019, access to housing could be what drives him away. He’d like more opportunity for housing options and may consider moving to a place that has more.

“I wanted to be really a part of this community. I still do, because I love the schools here,” Cook said. “... It's really making it tough. It's almost like nobody's really forcing us to leave or anything, but it does kind of feel like we're getting pushed away.”

What Cook wants most, though, is to provide for his kids.

“I want to show them that stability is a thing. It’s something that can be established,” Cook said. “But I can’t seem to establish that.”

Paul Schwedelson covers growth, Nampa and Caldwell. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

Carolyn Komatsoulis covers Meridian and Ada County. Contact her at 208-465-8107 and follow her on Twitter @CKomatsoulis.