Idaho’s real estate markets are on a roll. Home prices have soared statewide. Builders are building as fast as they can. Buyers scramble, often putting in multiple above-full-price offers, before getting a home under contract.
But, 30% of Idahoans do not own a home. And, those renters are being squeezed by rapidly climbing rents and limited housing availability.
That was recently illustrated in a series of stories by Ryan Suppe of the Post Register. He highlighted that in Bonneville County an affordable two-bedroom rental would require earning $13.77 an hour but the average local wage is only $10.96 an hour. And, rents are escalating sharply. Suppe cited a couple, Tonya Nicole and Cody Hellickson, whose rent has jumped from $850 a month to $1150 a month — in three years. Many renters claim that their choices are limited and they often have to accept a flawed place or pay more than is advisable.
Many believe the solution to high-priced rental housing is simply building more housing. But, renters need more rentals, not more large single family homes (which is the focus of much of Idaho’s building activity).
Most of our housing today is located in subdivisions and consists almost entirely of single family homes. That is really a post-World War II development. Our housing stock used to be far more varied.
Years ago, I had a chance to view an office building in downtown Idaho Falls. On the top floor was an abandoned section consisting of small studio apartments with Murphy beds that pulled down from the wall, shared bathrooms and not a single parking space nearby. I assume this was used during the 1930s and 1940s by those who staffed the shops and offices within walking distance. I imagine mostly singles and, maybe, a few couples occupyied the units. I suspect for many it was their chance to live frugally and, hopefully, eventually move ahead.
Today we lack those kind of inexpensive housing options for renters and we need to recreate them in both our bigger cities and more rural areas. Successful models do exist.
Last spring Forbes magazine featured PadSplit, an Atlanta business that has a unique property management model for property owners. They rent individual bedrooms in houses to tenants, allocate the utility bill among the residents and attract owner signups by boosting returns by 60% over a traditional house rental. You see such options in college towns but they need to be more available. PadSplit’s average tenant earns only $21,000 a year but saves $460 a month by sharing a house with others. Most of the pushback for such modern day “boarding houses” is from neighbors. They don’t like multiple cars coming and going from one house on the block.
One past alternative we need to revive more broadly is so-called accessory units, also called mother-in-law, basement, attic, above-the-garage or backyard apartments. Such can provide housing for family members and non-related renters and income for the owner (who might be on a fixed income). The barriers, again, are neighbors complaining about multiple households living on the same lot, zoning restrictions, and lack of parking.
Another approach is micro-units or very small apartments. Ruf and Associates, a Utah development firm, has built four four-story buildings in Salt Lake City with apartment units containing only 250 to 350 square feet of living space — with reduced rents. That is a unit that is only about 20 feet by 15 feet with a small kitchen area, a bathroom and a living/sleeping portion. For singles, couples or a single person with a child, that might be doable. Such small spaces are common in major cities and can be highly livable.
Of course, we also need more high density, large and smaller-scale apartments. The issue is, again, neighborhood opposition which often discourages developers from even considering building.
The way to affordable Idaho rentals is to encourage Idahoans who are homeowners to be more willing to accept renters as neighbors.
Of course, it would help if residents who add a basement apartment are encouraged to do so by the applicable zoning regulations. Counties and cities in Idaho need to move to more flexible, multi-use zoning and minimize large, exclusively single-family homes neighborhoods.
The Idaho Legislature could look at banning neighborhood restrictive covenants barring long term rentals.
But, fundamentally, we need an attitude change. Idaho residents need to remember that their fellow citizens — and their own children and grandchildren — really need more affordable rental options. The too often not-in-my-backyard mentality needs to be replaced with an attitude of “welcome to the neighborhood!”