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Commentary Article December 14th, 2021
Cities • Delivery • Innovation • Infrastructure

Building a Better Tomorrow in Boise

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The @CityofBoise participatied in @BHcityleaders delivered in partnership w/ @CPI_foundation to provide increased affordable housing options in the face of rapidly rising rent & resident displacement

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“The issue of housing is connected to so many other things micro & macro levels - domestic violence, climate and transportation, it impacts all areas of the city and people’s lives” Eli Griffin from @CityofBoise

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"50 years ago, cities were focused on providing high-quality services. Over the last decades cities have become more ambitious, asking ‘How can we solve housing affordability? Climate change?” Kyle Patterson @CityofBoise

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From November 2020 to August 2021, the City of Boise, Idaho participated in the Bloomberg Harvard Innovation Track, a Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative program delivered in partnership with the Centre for Public Impact. During the program, 11 interdisciplinary city teams from across the U.S. developed innovative solutions to a pressing city problem while adopting cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact. Boise sought to provide increased affordable housing options in the face of rapidly rising rents and resident displacement.

Boise, the capital of Idaho, lies along the banks of the Boise River at the foothills of the Boise Mountains. This idyllic city is beloved for its stunning views, easy access to nature, and sense of community.

All of these factors, along with a traditionally low cost of living, has made Boise an increasingly attractive place to live. In the 2010s, Boise saw 14.6% population growth. Internal migration from other parts of Idaho, as well as new residents moving in from California, Washington, Oregon, and other states, has seen the number of residents far outstrip the available supply of housing in an extremely short time frame, leading to a corresponding increase in housing and rental costs.

“Housing affordability has been an issue in Boise for a number of years now,” said Kyle Patterson, City Data Strategist in the Mayor’s Office, “I think it’s something that everyone in the community of Boise is acutely aware of.” What was already a problem in Boise grew into something approaching a crisis, as Boise’s growth and its attendant housing costs, exploded during the pandemic. According to Kyle, “Boise is now the second least affordable place to live when you factor in housing costs and median wages - almost half the folks in Boise are cost-burdened in their housing costs.”

These issues can often sound dry, and impersonal, but the team made clear they were anything but. As Kyle put it, “It’s one thing to understand academically that housing affordability is an issue in Boise, and it’s another thing to have personal conversations with people about their experiences. Through those conversations, you realize that the extent of the problem isn’t just about not being able to afford housing - it’s about having access to good jobs, it’s about having a safe place to live.”

“The issue of housing is connected to so many other things micro and macro levels - it’s connected to domestic violence, it’s connected to climate and transportation, it impacts all areas of the city and people’s lives,” Eli Griffin, Mayor’s Office Admin Coordinator.

Eli Griffin, the Mayor’s Office Admin Coordinator, agreed - “There was an interviewee who had left a domestic violence situation. She had come to Boise because housing was affordable and had resources other areas didn’t have. While she was able to come to Boise, find a place that was her own, and create this safe place for herself, years later she can’t afford her apartment anymore and now is having to choose between resources such as her car and rent, and she’s afraid that she’s going to have to leave the place that she calls home.”

Even among the team participating in the Innovation Track, individuals had firsthand experience with affordable housing in Boise. Andrea Armentrout, Training Systems Administrator, described being forced to move out of her long-time North End neighborhood due to rising rents, and then watching the exact same process happen to her son and daughter-in-law. “My rent would have gone up 80%. My son and daughter-in-law’s rent would have doubled,” explained Andrea.

The challenge of affordable housing was an ongoing, living part of the City of Boise, and it was one that the team participating in the Innovation Track knew needed their attention.

Listening to the community to understand the problem

The Innovation Track team quickly realized that a problem as complicated and widespread as the housing crisis wouldn’t be easy to tackle. Fortunately, they had a ready, willing, and able partner - the residents of Boise themselves.

“Boise’s community wants to be heard, they want to be part of the solution,” explained Pam Bond, Enterprise GIS Analyst SR in the IT Department, “A lot of the people in our community who are capable of being part of the solution want to and are willing to and they stay engaged with what's going on in the city.”

 It was a widespread willingness to help that led to the team making a breakthrough during the “Understanding the Problem” phase of the Innovation Track, which Kyle boiled down into three key lessons. “The three big findings were: 1. There’s a large group of folks in the community who want to be a part of the solution -  so how do we take advantage of that opportunity and give them a way to do that, 2. Things like Accessory Dwelling Units and Tiny Homes - or ‘small footprint living’ - are becoming increasingly in demand, and finally 3. Our current land is being underutilized.”

Armed with these insights from direct conversations with residents, which would include 200+ residents by the end of Boise’s experience in the Track, the team eagerly moved to the Generate Phase of the Innovation Track.

Fighting for affordable housing in three different ways

After working with residents to better understand the problem of affordable housing and co-create bold solutions, the Innovation Track team split into three subteams who were responsible for conducting additional resident engagement, prototyping, and feedback.  Boise focused on three programs designed to increase the affordable housing options available to Boise residents, ultimately keeping Boiseans off the streets and in their communities:  Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), Tiny Homes on Wheels, and a house-sharing program.

Interestingly, many of these programs were already happening in Boise, though on a person-to-person basis rather than as a government program. Pam Bond, the Enterprise GIS Analyst SR in the IT department described the trend saying, “We know this is already happening in the community. If you go on Craigslist, you’ll see listings where people forced to live in RVs are asking the community if someone has a driveway they could park in for a while.”

Each subteam tried different methods of community engagement. The Tiny Homes team did surveys about the type of Tiny Home facilities residents would be interested in and engaged with residents about what they hoped to see in their community. They even held a public event where they displayed what a model Tiny Home would look like in a driveway. The ADU team created the equivalent of a “choose-your-own-adventure” book to determine the types of assistance the community would be interested in receiving. “There’s a variety of ways the city and partners can help make ADUs an affordable housing solution,” said Gates Marquez, the Libary Assistant Lead at the Hillcrest Branch of the Boise Public Library, “But we need to whittle this down into something the homeowners are actually going to use.” The house-sharing program hosted extensive conversations with residents about the profile of people they’d be willing to share a house with, what considerations they would want taken into account, and who would be able to use the program.

"There’s a variety of ways the city and partners can help make ADUs an affordable housing solution, but we need to whittle this down into something the homeowners are actually going to use,” Gates Marquez, Libary Assistant Lead at the Hillcrest Branch of the Boise Public Library.

Through the prototyping process, these subteams quickly discovered was that while they had focused on the more technical and financial aspects of these programs, the residents were often more concerned about administrative hurdles and quality of life.

Piloting ADUs and Mobile Tiny Homes into an affordable tomorrow

Of the three programs, the Mobile Tiny Homes and the ADUs are moving forward into the pilot phase. While Tiny Homes are not currently legally allowed, Boise is granting temporary, six-month approval to five or six participating residents who have usable areas on their property. A non-profit will provide financial assistance to help prepare the sites - creating utility hookups and a pad to place the Mobile Tiny Homes. The team will be partnering with an outside evaluator to help determine the demand, the economic viability, the quality of life, and any unintended consequences that may arise.

Similarly, the plan for the ADU pilot is to recruit ten local residents to build an ADU on their property and rent it out at affordable rates for ten years. The City will assist in smoothing the permitting process for these homeowners, and then bringing on a local non-profit to help with customer service for both the renters and the homeowners - to learn about how to be a landlord, to learn about financing options, and more. The team will turn again to an outside evaluator to determine the long term viability of this program.

Speaking to the pilot approach, Kyle Patterson explained, “Rather than pursuing a permanent code change, let’s find low-cost, low-risk ways to test this and see if those concerns are valid and can be mitigated. Maybe they are valid and we shouldn’t do this! But let’s have an opportunity to see if they’re actually viable.”

For both of these pilots, the team will define success metrics and is reaching out to residents who engaged with them during the earlier phases of the Innovation Track to identify any additional metrics that the residents would like to see measured. The team plans on holding at least three community outreach events over the coming months to continue to solicit feedback and ideas about the upcoming pilot programs and the metrics that will be used to measure success.

Taking the Innovation Track to the rest of Boise

The Innovation Track has been an enormously positive experience for the Boise team, and the lessons they’ve learned are being shared across the entirety of city government. Already the team has launched a number of projects that will incorporate innovation training principles including Eli Griffin’s work on an eight-week design sprint to expand Boise’s geothermal residential heating program (which is already the largest in the U.S.), a design sprint to help solve a chronic debate around City Hall parking; Gates Marquez’s application of ideation techniques to help a library team use nine years of data to improve the Boise Comic Arts Festival, and Pam Bond’s future collaboration with a staffer in the Information Technology Department to bring the lessons learned from the Innovation Track.

The team is certain that design-based thinking will play an increasingly important role in city operations. “50 years ago, cities were mostly thinking about how to provide high-quality services - good parks, good libraries, good police services. Over the last couple of decades, cities have become a lot more ambitious. They’re now asking ‘How can we solve housing affordability? Climate change? Inclusive economic growth?” said Kyle Patterson, “There are no silver bullets there - nobody has solved those completely. So we have to stay creative, and the only way we can be effective is engaging the community, finding solutions, and trying them out - and trying things that might not work!”

“50 years ago, cities were mostly thinking about how to provide high-quality services - good parks, good libraries, good police services. Over the last couple of decades, cities have become a lot more ambitious. They’re now asking ‘How can we solve housing affordability? Climate change? Inclusive economic growth?” Kyle Patterson, City Data Strategist.

“Participating in this project has been an honor. The fact that HR senior management selected me to be on this team - I felt validated and recognized for the work I’ve done. It was important to me to do something meaningful outside of my usual ‘run the business’ duties before I retire. It’s been amazing to work with people from 11 different departments. Hearing resident’s different experiences and perspectives has been eye-opening and I’m grateful for the chance to be a part of this team. I’d like to thank Harvard, Bloomberg and CPI for picking the City of Boise to do this!” Andrea Armentrout, Training Systems Administrator, HR.

Written by:

Gates Marquez Lead Library Assistant, Boise Public Library
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Eli Griffin Coordinator, Our Path Home
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Andrea Armentrout Training and Development Systems Administrator, City of Boise
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Pam Bond Enterprise GIS Analyst Senior, City of Boise
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Kyle Patterson City Data Strategist, City of Boise
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