‘Let's Try Something New’ Meets the National Housing Squeeze
Read more Stateline coverage of how communities across the country are trying to create more affordable housing.
BOISE, Idaho — Riley Romazko and her fiancé Julien Rivera were among the first to buy a shipping container home at Caritas Commons, a cluster of single-family houses built for limited-income residents on a quiet street in an older Boise neighborhood.
Romazko, 27, who runs an online naturopath consultancy and Rivera, 29, who owns a small moving company, had been living for three years with Romazko's mother and her boyfriend in nearby Nampa, and they were eager to find their own place. But as the median sales price in Ada County reached $595,000 earlier this year, Romazko said owning their own home looked increasingly out of reach.
"In this area there's such a shortage of homes, and the homes that are available in your price range are dumps," she said. "I could never find even an old, ugly moldy house at this price range in our market. It's just such an extreme shortage."
Romazko's mother was working at indieDwell, a company that specializes in recycling shipping containers into dwellings. Romazko was intrigued by the prospect of living in one, especially if it was affordable.
That's when she discovered LEAP, a Boise nonprofit that builds affordable homes, often using donated land held in trust. Caritas Commons was one of LEAP's first communities built with such a housing trust, which keeps the home prices lower for not just the first buyers, but subsequent owners, said Zeb Moers, the nonprofit's outreach manager.
Across the street are the Windy Court apartments, also developed by LEAP, distinctive for their drought-friendly plantings and the industrial black shipping containers used to build the rentals.
Both developments represent some of the modest but innovative approaches to affordable housing in a state that's seen home prices boom with its population. The use of alternative construction techniques and materials, along with creative means of land ownership and financing and siting homes may help more people live in one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation.
It's an approach that makes housing "affordable to folks on a Boise budget," said Kyle Patterson, one of the city officials in the mayor's office charged with addressing the growing housing crisis faced there.
High rents and a limited inventory of available homes plague many states, driving up prices and contributing to homelessness. Nationwide, there's an estimated shortage of 3.8 million housing units. Finding a way to make homes more affordable and accessible is the No. 1 priority in many jurisdictions, including Boise. Boise lacks 13,000 homes necessary to meet demand, according to an analysis by Up For Growth looking at how the nation's housing shortage ballooned from 2012 to 2019.
Efforts throughout the country include updating zoning regulations to allow for denser development, and even spurring the construction of manufactured homes. More cities and states also are permitting accessory dwelling units, or ADUs—smaller secondary cottages or in-law apartments on a lot or within a single-family home.
The Biden administration in May announced a Housing Supply Action Plan to address shortages. Among the administration’s priorities is finding new ways to finance mortgages for ADUs, manufactured housing and small apartment buildings. The administration also will give more weight in federal housing grants to cities, states and other jurisdictions that adopt zoning and land-use policies that prioritize affordable rents and attainable home ownership.
A recent study of homebuyer migration patterns by Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage investor, shows "a population in pursuit of affordable housing." But it's particularly bad in Boise, which is among the top 25 metro areas where people migrated from even pricier cities to buy homes, according to Freddie Mac. In Boise and the even faster-growing surrounding cities of Nampa, Meridian and Caldwell, wages haven't kept pace with the rising cost of rent or homes.
Since the start of the pandemic, Idaho has seen an influx of people fleeing more expensive markets in search of relative bargains, as well as remote workers eager for a mountain lifestyle, who arrive with Silicon Valley salaries to spend on housing. Rents also have become particularly unaffordable in the Boise area. A July survey by Apartment List shows rents in the city grew an eye-popping 47.4% from March 2020 through June 2022.
LEAP is phasing out the use of shipping containers, and future homes at Caritas will be built using more traditional construction techniques. But the materials are only a part of what makes their approach affordable, Moers said. The apartments they built at Windy Court, for example, have solar panels on the roof to keep utility costs low for residents—the motto for the apartment complex is that it's "designed like the planet matters." Older adults and people with disabilities get priority placement.
"We really started with the shipping containers at first just to be like, 'Let's try something new,' because obviously the status quo wasn't doing the job," Moers said. "There are other builders out there that are doing the missing middle housing, where they're building in the suburbs and selling them for something that's reasonable. But that's not really what we're trying to get into. We'll leave that to the for-profit developers, and we'll try to navigate in our lane as creative and as innovative as we can."
In Spokane, a city in eastern Washington that also has seen housing sticker shock, the city council is considering a one-year pilot program to allow denser development, including permitting duplexes in most parts of the city. In 2021, a report commissioned by the Spokane Association of Realtors determined that as few as 15% of city residents with jobs can afford to purchase homes, according to Spokane Public Radio.
Spokane's move mirrors innovations long underway in Portland and other Oregon cities, where a 2019 state law ended the single-family zoning regulations that have defined many American cities and suburbs since World War II. In areas once zoned exclusively for single-family homes, smaller Oregon cities must allow duplexes, and cities larger than 25,000 people must allow duplexes as well as townhouses, triplexes and fourplexes. Portland also allows sixplexes on lots once zoned for a single home.
Similar sweeping zoning changes that allow infill development in Minneapolis were halted last month until the city addresses environmental concerns raised in a lawsuit by the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and other organizations.
Oregon has begun seeking even more ways to expand access to housing, including a renewed emphasis on manufactured housing, said state Rep. Pam Marsh, a Democrat who represents a southern Oregon district where wildfires destroyed 1,500 mobile homes in 2020. Before the fires, Marsh represented the district with the most people in Oregon living in manufactured housing. Replacement manufactured homes are hard to come by, though.
"I have constituents who ordered them more than a year ago, a year and a half ago, and they're still waiting for these homes to be produced," Marsh said.
Marsh sponsored successful legislation that expands where factory-built homes can be sited in Oregon, as well as what they can look like. (Some of the regulations dated to the 1980s, when the industry itself asked for more stringent guidelines, including minimum square footages on mobile homes, to help reduce the former stigma of living in them.)
Marsh also funneled $15 million in state housing money toward the construction of a new, nonprofit manufactured home factory run by the St. Vincent de Paul charity. That facility could be operational next year in a former steel plant in Eugene. One of its chief goals would be to manufacture homes for people who lost theirs to wildfire—or for those who might lose them in future fires.
In Boise, LEAP is administering a pilot program to see whether it makes sense to incorporate more types of housing into the city's portfolio, including tiny homes on wheels and ADUs. Currently, tiny homes aren't allowed in Boise. But 55 people applied for six spots in the pilot program, Moers said, proving there's a demand.
When LEAP opened applications for the ADU pilot, 75 people applied for 10 or 12 slots to build such homes on their property. ADUs are allowed in Boise, but as with all construction right now, building standalone units has become cost prohibitive. LEAP hopes to make the process more affordable by using one builder for all 10 to 12 of the pilot ADUs, and similar designs and materials throughout the project.
The pilot program also will look for ways to provide low-cost financing and fee waivers to ADU owners who rent out their units at an affordable rate for 10 years, as well as help people with permitting and property management.
No single approach will solve the housing crisis—and Boise is certainly not the first to integrate ADUs, tiny homes or sweeping zoning changes into its approach to finding people homes. But if the ADUs and tiny homes work in Boise, Patterson said, it might prove to be among the scalable solutions that could make alternative forms of housing more affordable and available without contributing to sprawl.
"This is one piece of much, a much broader effort from the city that's really all started over the last two or three years, as we've seen this issue of housing affordability become more and more real," he said.
Romazko and Rivera bought their four-bedroom, two-bathroom home for $212,000 in March. They won't build equity in the traditional sense with the purchase, but their mortgage is less expensive than renting an apartment in Boise. If they do someday decide to sell the house, they'll recoup their down payment and a portion of other investments they put into the property. That will keep the home affordable for future homebuyers.
Romazko says she wants others to benefit from the approach that got her and her fiancé into a home. It is "a great concept for this area," she said. "I think we need more of it, especially here. I love the neighborhood. I love everything about it. It just worked out so great."