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Hope for Housing

Chipping away at the 'great unmet need' of southwest Idaho

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The evacuation of Cooper Court by Boise police four months ago was professionally executed by police, popular with the public, traumatic for its occupants and inconclusive in its outcome.

Those who were homeless then are largely homeless today, having drifted back into the shadows as the weather improved. Yet Cooper Court might turn out to have been a galvanizing event—a turning point where the city pivoted toward a better life for the homeless and, more importantly, more affordable housing in Boise. This is a column about hope.

The sweep of the tent city took place months after a task force appointed by Boise Mayor Dave Bieter began working on the homeless challenge.

Boise has historically provided lot of low-income housing (unlike most cities its size) but when it came to the homeless, its law and policy has been that it is illegal to sleep on the street if a bed is available in a shelter. Hundreds had been arrested and millions of dollars spent on jails and courts as a consequence over the years.

While the law hasn't changed, Boise policy has shifted to favor "Housing First."

Modeled after success in Salt Lake City, this approach provides the chronically homeless with permanent housing and supportive services.

According to a Boise State University, analysis this approach will over time more than pay for itself in lower police, court and emergency medical expenses.

On Feb. 8, Bieter announced a two-pronged plan to provide 30 dwellings for the chronically homeless in scattered sites and about 30 at a single site, at a cost of about $5.5 million. These will likely roll out in 2017.

The harder job is providing supportive services for a struggling population. It's expensive, slow to take hold and thrives best with a lot of partners. In Salt Lake these included the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, other churches, several wealthy donors and the state of Utah.

Locally, St. Luke's and Saint Al's are "in" because they absorb a Boise State-estimated $3.5 million a year in emergency room treatment for the chronically homeless. So are the Terry Riley Health Services; CATCH, a homeless agency for families; and other private and public agencies. Ada Country has been asked to kick in $250,000 a year. Credit the city for attempting a more humane and cost-effective—if tough-to-execute—solution.

To keep this in perspective, a rolling population of nearly 700 men, women and children sleeps in Boise's homeless shelters every night. Moreover, as many as 5,000 Boise families and individuals live so close to the bone that they're one medical bill, abuse, divorce or layoff from missing a housing payment and becoming homeless themselves. Another 5,000 in Ada and Canyon counties live close to eviction, making affordable housing the great unmet need in southwestern Idaho.

Is there hope things will get better?

Downtown Boise is bursting with new construction, including a 159-unit apartment complex called The Fowler at Fourth and Myrtle streets, and a couple of higher-end condo developments. What is hopeful is that about an equal number of affordable and workforce housing residences will likely be built in downtown's West End around the proposed new campus of the College of Western Idaho.

One project with more than 100 residences would be a mix of families and individuals with incomes as low as 30 percent of the average low income up to market-rate incomes. Another would serve 50 low-income families. A third, to be built by Local Construct—the firm that restored the Owyhee and is building The Fowler—would provide 150-200 residences at Main Street and Whitewater Park Boulevard. While not restricted by income, nurses, firefighters and college staff could afford them and live close to work. The city owned this land and could have sold it off for high-end residences or offices, but did not.

Additionally, four affordable "pocket neighborhoods" are coming out of the ground not far from downtown—three in Garden City and one near Vista Avenue in Boise.

Sponsored by NeighborWorks Boise, these are smaller—but not tiny—houses on compact sites, close to the Boise Greenbelt or within walking distance of a bus line. They would provide about 75 homes in the lower-income and workforce market.

These eight or so projects don't begin to meet the shortfall in affordable housing in the Treasure Valley. Less costly approaches will be needed but over many years, southwest Idaho has already managed to build an astonishing and little appreciated 11,685 low-income residences, according to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. They trace back, in whole or in part, to federal dollars and those funds are declining, thanks to Congress.

That's not good news, but this is a hopeful column. Let us celebrate that which is hopeful.

Jerry Brady is a two-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate, a former Idaho Falls newspaper owner and a member of Compassionate Boise (compassionateboise.org).