apartment zoning

An apartment building is seen on the 300 block of 11th street on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.

Idaho Falls needs more apartments. As the population grows — 7 percent growth since 2010 — so does the demand for affordable, multi-family housing. But in Idaho Falls, a city that traditionally has been dominated by single-family homes, the supply of high-density housing hasn’t kept up with the demand.

Idaho Falls, like many cities in Idaho and across the country, is experiencing an affordable housing shortage.

A tight real estate market has trickled down to rentals, raising rents and limiting options. Meanwhile, new apartments aren’t being built fast enough — a labor shortage and rising costs of building materials have slowed construction.

Even if developers targeted Idaho Falls for multi-family housing, they might face challenges — from residents who oppose apartments’ impact on traffic, schools or property values, and from city zoning laws, which favor low-density housing.

Where can apartments be built in Idaho Falls? It’s an issue that city leaders, private developers and citizens will have to tackle in the near future. Meanwhile, renters are already struggling to find an affordable place to live.

‘Extreme situation’

The rental vacancy rate in Idaho Falls is between 1 and 3 percent, according to CLUB Inc., a local nonprofit that provides rental assistance and short-term housing.

“Affordable housing is next to nonexistent in the community,” said Barb Dahl, executive director of CLUB Inc.

Additionally, rentals are becoming less affordable. A recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that wages are not keeping up with the rising rental costs in the area. Local renters, especially single-income families, can’t afford a modest two-bedroom home, the study found.

The influx of new residents has tightened the housing market from the top, down. Rising costs for home sales have trickled down to impact rental costs, as well.

“Rents in the area are certainly inflated just because the housing market is inflated,” said Jay Doman, CEO of the Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership.

For housing assistance organizations such as Doman’s, which rely on tax incentives and have to abide by caps on rental prices, rising rents have made it nearly impossible to assist low-income residents in finding affordable housing.

In an environment in which rents are high and waiting lists are full, private property managers can be more selective about rental applications, according to Brady Ellis, vice president of housing support programs for the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. Often, only the applicants with the best credit and rental histories are accepted.

Consequently, public housing waiting lists are filling up. Ellis said the waiting list for Idaho Falls’ Idaho Housing and Finance Association housing choice vouchers — a form of federal rental assistance for low-income, elderly and disabled citizens — is 18 to 20 months in Idaho Falls, which is very high compared to past years.

Idaho Falls is experiencing an “extreme situation” in terms of rental rates and availability, Ellis said. And it’s not alone. Rentals in the Treasure Valley are even more expensive, as it experiences a similar shortage.

“Everybody’s really experiencing the same thing,” Ellis said.

High-density zoning

States and cities across the country are dealing with the affordable housing problem in different ways.

One approach has been to change zoning laws, to allow multi-family dwellings in areas that historically only allowed single-family dwellings.

Some states are moving to ban single-family zoning altogether. This year, Oregon may become the first state to ban single-family zoning in cities larger than 10,000 people. A bill doing just that was passed by the legislature and is awaiting the Oregon governor’s signature.

Idaho Falls is different from Portland, Ore., or Minneapolis, which is also considering a single-family zoning ban, but the city is experiencing similar growing pains, as the economy grows and more jobs draw people from out-of-state.

One-third of Idaho Falls residents are renters. But just 10 percent of permitted residential properties are zoned for high-density housing. The remaining 90 percent of property is zoned for low- and medium-density housing.

Much of Idaho Falls’ renter population lives in these low- and medium-density zones in the city’s center.

According to a 2017 study, commissioned by the city of Idaho Falls, 83 percent of residents of downtown are renters. In the numbered streets 43 to 67 percent are renters. In the lettered streets, north of downtown, 65 percent are renters. And an area west of Interstate 15, stretching to Skyline Drive, between West Broadway and Pancheri Drive, is home to 73 percent renters.

The city’s Planning and Zoning Department has targeted these areas for mixed uses, hoping to encourage a diversity of single-family to multi-family dwellings, according to Brad Cramer, director of Idaho Falls’ Community Development Services.

The numbered streets, for example, are zoned TN (traditional neighborhood), which allows single-family housing and dwellings with up to 15 units per acre. However, there are restrictions on the height and shape of a potential TN building, which are meant to preserve the look and feel of the historic neighborhood. As a result, former houses, converted to multiple units, make up a large portion of the apartments there. And large, high-density dwellings are rare.

If new apartments are built, where will they go?

City planners and private developers prefer to locate high-density housing near arterial roads, where traffic moves more easily and residents are closer to amenities, such as shopping and dining. In Idaho Falls, high-density apartments are found near 17th Street, First Street and near West Broadway.

But developers also prefer to be near the densely populated city center.

“From an urban planning standpoint it just makes more sense to pack some density rather than doing another subdivision between Idaho Falls and Shelley,” said Thomas Mannschreck, president, CEO and co-owner of Thomas Development Company, a Boise-based real estate development company.

If a city’s comprehensive plan favors infilling the city center, it makes sense to develop there, Mannschreck said, especially if there are schools and shopping opportunities nearby.

Thomas Development Company has built three multi-family housing complexes in Idaho Falls. Two of the properties had to be rezoned for high-density housing.

Rezoning for high density can be a challenge, especially in existing neighborhoods. Public hearings, where neighbors can voice opposition to a new development, are required — “They’re always contentious,” Cramer said.

When a neighborhood opposes a high-density development it’s most often over concerns of increased traffic and the impact on school populations, Mannschreck said.

While a traditional, single-family neighborhood may have four to five units per acre, a multi-family development might have 18 to 20 units per acre, Mannschreck said.

“We have a lot more kids per acre,” he said.

The city of Idaho Falls has always been supportive of Thomas Development Company projects, Mannschreck said. But it takes more than government support to bring a high-density apartment complex to fruition. Public support is required, as well, which may be difficult to attain in Idaho Falls.

“I see in this town a stigma about rentals and renters in this community, and that needs to change,” Cramer said.

Starting a conversation

Cramer said the city has no immediate plans to update zoning regulations, but he hopes to start a conversation with the community about how higher density demands can be addressed.

“When it comes to housing, in general, the difficulty locally is we’ve been so accustomed to single-family homes as what ‘everybody wants,’” Cramer said. “There is a market out there that prefers to rent, to be close to amenities, to live in a walkable area and that has environmental concerns. That market is showing itself more and more in Idaho Falls.”

The conversation will have to include both public and private parties, Cramer said. Whether private developers will respond to the demand for apartments is an open question. Cramer said some developers still don’t believe there’s a demand for high-density housing in Idaho Falls.

“They take an enormous risk when they do this,” Cramer said.

Whether the community will support new high-density development is an open question, as well.

Reporter Ryan Suppe can be reached at 208-542-6762. Follow him on Twitter: @salsuppe.