MERIDIAN, Idaho — This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press.
Meridian Mayor Robert Simison said this week he isn’t to the point where he feels comfortable with investing dollars in affordable housing.
He made his comments during a budget workshop where councilmembers discussed spending money on affordable housing, particularly for Jesse Tree, an organization that provides eviction and rental assistance.
There is very little affordable housing in Meridian or in Ada County. For example, around 40 Meridian families apply for help from Jesse Tree every month. To sustain their services, Executive Director Ali Rabe came to Meridian to ask for local money ahead of a federal grant running out.
“The price of food has gone up. We don’t support the Meridian Food Bank with general fund dollars,” Simison said. “I would argue food insecurity is as big if not bigger. How many days can you go without food and water compared to housing? I don’t want to get into that debate.”
Though Simison, a homeowner, later said in the meeting he would be more comfortable in the short-term using American Rescue Plan Act funds, his statement puts him at odds with his neighbors.
In Boise, Mayor Lauren McLean has gone out of her way to recognize the importance of affordable housing and commit city resources and federal funding to the issue. And in Nampa, Mayor Debbie Kling emphasized the need for “attainable housing” in her last state of the city.
Meanwhile, Simison said in his most recent state of the city that Meridian was exploring what the appropriate role and responsibility of local government is when it comes to affordable housing.
In a Thursday phone interview, Simison said the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits cities from spending money on things unless the city determines that it is the city’s responsibility. However, the city of Boise spends money on affordable housing, and when asked about that, Simison said he would have to look at what is right for Meridian.
When it comes to Jesse Tree, Simison questioned whether providing help to families through the organization would lower the overall cost of housing.
“I don’t think that we’re talking about enough of an impact,” Simison said. “At the end of the day, we are limited. We don’t control land prices, we don’t control the labor market or the cost of materials. ... We are limited as a city about how we can impact the overall affordability.”
However, the city can control zoning codes and where housing gets built. Simison said that’s part of the conversation.
Simison said he was concerned about how the next generation of Meridian homebuyers would get into the market. He said he has advocated for more condominium-style development to help people buy and build equity starting at a lower home price.
When asked if he had concerns about renters, Simison said the city has a lot more rental opportunities than before.
“I know the community is concerned about the amount of multifamily,” Simison said. “Ultimately, it’s trying to find a good ratio and balance of multifamily and single family in a community in the right places.”
Mayors respond to many different pressures and interests, said Stephanie Witt, professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University. For example, Boise has a higher homeless visibility.
“It could be that the city of Meridian is not feeling the pressure of people who are currently houseless, the same way that the city of Boise is,” Witt said.
So what is the extent of the issue in Meridian?
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