When Cameron Crow, 29, contemplated a move back to his native Boise, Idaho, three years ago, his friends reacted with confusion. At the time, Crow was a data analyst working in San Francisco, the nation’s tech hub; why would he leave that for a small city in Idaho?
Crow said it took a single sentence for them to see the light: “You can easily own a home, have a 10-minute commute to work by bike, and drink $4 craft beers downtown.”
Three years after Crow returned home, becoming a Boise boomerang and starting his own analytics firm, he’s realized he’s in a much different city than the one he grew up in—and the one he pitched to friends. The picturesque metropolitan on the Boise River has boomed. New businesses—and, yes, breweries—have changed the core of a city that’s earned rave reviewsfor its livability and proximity to nature.
The Boise metro area (population 700,000) has also experienced the downsides of rapid growth. Idaho, now the fastest-growing state in the nation, and Boise, a boomtown by many measures, have felt the strain from the city’s recent success. Downtown is straining under traffic problems, and housing costs have skyrocketed. The state projects the region will add another 100,000 residents by 2025.
As Crow says, when people thought of Boise, or Idaho, they usually thought of potatoes, the signature blue field used by Boise State University’s football field (“Smurf turf”), or the film Napoleon Dynamite. Increasingly, the city is also known as a destination for new arrivals, many of them from California, Seattle, and Portland.
Like other smaller Western cities, like Reno, Nevada, and Spokane, Washington, an echo boom—driven by West Coasters priced out of their increasingly expensive metros—is exacerbating the problems of economic growth and a tight housing market. According to the most recent census data, of the roughly 80,000 new Idaho residents in 2016, 17,000 (roughly 21 percent) came from California (hence the term “Californiacation”), and 9,300 came from Washington. Realtor.com found that last quarter, 86 percent of all out-of-state views of Boise listings came from the Golden State. These homebuyers, especially retirees, who cashed out at California or Seattle prices and want to buy in and around Boise, have helped increase the cost of real estate.
The median home price for Ada County, Idaho, which includes Boise, was $209,990 in October 2014, according to Boise Regional Realtors president Phil Mount. Last month, it was $324,950, an increase of nearly 55 percent. The median price jumped 15.2 percent last year alone.
According to Don Day, publisher and writer for BoiseDev, a site that covers local development news, the region is now more sprawling and expensive. Smaller suburbs like Nampa and Meridian are booming and farm roads are being repaved to make way for planned communities. While locals can see the rising housing values, they, unlike new arrivals, can’t trade up.
“At the end of the day, people experience growth personally, through how hard it is to park downtown, how long it takes to get to work, or if their kid can afford a home nearby,” says Jen Schneider, a professor of public policy at Boise State. “I was born and raised here when it was a sleepy town. You can still climb the foothills in the morning and not see anybody. If you start to see those things change, especially due to competition from people coming from California, it’s not just NIMBYism. It’s people holding on to something that’s dear.”
“They’re trying to throw gas on the fire of growth”
Evidence of Boise’s boom is ever-present, according to longtime residents: Microbreweries and condo complexes have sprung up downtown, and dockless electric scooters zip through increasingly congested streets. Tech firms like Payocity have relocated here, boosting the established tech industry in a region historically known as Treasure Valley. Near the Zions Bank Building, a recent addition to Boise’s skyline, the tech investment firm Clearwater Analytics and the Boise State University computer science department are just a few floors from each other at 777 Main Street. Talk about an experiment in synergy.
And more is coming. Expansive planned communities, including a development in nearby Syringa Valley boasting 2,000 homes, seek to turn around the area’s housing shortage; the Boise region has seen a continuous month-over-month inventory decline for the last four years. Two large public projects, including a multipurpose stadium and a $100 million-plus riverfront library designed by Habitat 67 architect Moshe Safdie, would symbolize significant investment in the city’s civic infrastructure. To many, they also symbolize how Boise is changing too fast.
“People are concerned the city is trying to throw gas on the fire of growth,” says Crow. “People think they’re taking any opportunity to grow Boise.”
Boise has experienced booms and busts before, especially during the ’80s and late ’90s. The city’s experience with urban renewal in the ’70s was the subject of a famous Harper’s magazine article, “Tearing Down Boise.”
”If things go on as they are, Boise stands an excellent chance of becoming the first American city to have deliberately eradicated itself,” wrote journalist L.J. Davis. “Downtown Boise gives the impression that it has recently been visited by an exceedingly tidy bombing raid conducted by planes that cleaned up after themselves.”
The current expansion may not even be as big, percentage-wise, as other city growth spurts, says Schneider. But as housing developments and sprawl turn formerly detached suburbs into extended parts of a larger metro area, new industries expand, and new arrivals settle in, the change that many feel is as much about character as population figures.
“People see remote workers here, and worry if this place is becoming an extension of Silicon Valley, in a way,” says BoiseDev’s Day. “People are worried about feeling the same impacts as Palo Alto or the Bay Area, that the new arrivals are hurting their standard of living.”
“The spigot is turned on, stop promoting growth”
Boise’s economic growth and skyrocketing housing prices have many factors beyond an influx of new arrivals from San Francisco and Los Angeles: Low costs, a business-friendly state government, and a backdrop of forests and foothills have each exerted a strong pull. But new Boisians are easy to point to when discussing the region’s increasing affordability problem.
With median home prices north of $300,000, and the median Idaho income measuring roughly $51,000 a year, people may soon be priced out, says Samia Islam, an economics professor at Boise State University. Islam points to the shortage of medium- and high-density housing, as well as the housing consumption gap: Local homeowners can get a great price when they sell their homes, due to recent appreciation, but trading up to accommodate a larger family becomes more challenging. Realtor.com found that someone making the median income could only afford 13 percent of the homes on the market.
“Building condos downtown that are priced at $425,000 and above for single-bedroom downtown apartments are also not reflective of the purchasing power of the average local resident by any measure,” she adds.
Rising prices and rapid change created the perfect conditions for Vanishing Boise, a group founded by Lori Dicaire that bills itself as a collection of smart-growth advocates seeking to preserve the city’s small businesses, landmarks, and farmland in the face of rapid change.
Dicaire argues that, in addition to losing the region’s heritage, the “urban growth machine” is threatening affordability, green space, and connection to nature, leading to the kind of unsustainable policies that pushed new arrivals to move to Boise in the first place. The group, which launched in 2017 and successfully protested the demolition of a downtown apartment building to make way for a CVS, has opposed the library proposal, arguing it uses funds that should be helping working-class Boisians suffering from rising housing costs and should be put to a referendum.
“The spigot is already turned on,” says Dicaire. “Stop promoting the city’s growth.”
In fact, some of the voices pushing back on growth and advocating for Boise to stay just the way it is haven’t been in the city long: After Crow’s return to Boise, he founded a data analytics firm and launched Make Idaho Better, a survey site measures public opinion and offers analysis to local government. His surveys asking Boisians about the city’s housing crunch suggested that those who had recently relocated were more likely to oppose growth.
“They come from LA and see the life they want, and then see it’s on a growth rampage, and then think, ‘I don’t want it to get closer to the place that I left,’” he says.
Boise’s growth challenges city government to evolve
Boise has found itself facing the same challenges as larger cities. Boise State University’s Schneider helped the city run a series of community conversations on growth over the last year to gauge sentiment about the current era of rapid change. The most important issues for residents included housing affordability, transportation and the lack of public transit options, environmental preservation, and a government that was moving too fast to promote development.
According to Mike Journee, the mayor’s director of communications, the city has been working on a series of proposals to tackle the city’s affordable-housing concerns, including creating a housing trust fund and reworking the zoning code to increase density. But Boise, a blue dot in a deep-red state, faces an uphill urban planning battle: With limited powers due to the state constitution’s small-government stance—the city can’t use inclusionary zoning or rent control since those are illegal, or levy a tax to pay for a much-needed expansion of local bus service—it’s hamstrung with a set of legal tools that don’t favor an active city government.
“People who are drawn to Boise now for its small-town charm are likely going to be disappointed if it becomes too much like what they left behind too soon,” says Islam. “But that change is inevitable. Our city is going to continue to evolve, regardless of our preference to keep it the way it is.”