Meridian’s mayor isn’t ready to invest in affordable housing

Meridian Mayor Robert Simison said this week that he’s not at the point where he feels comfortable investing dollars in affordable housing.

MERIDIAN, Idaho – This story originally appeared in Idaho Press.

Meridian Mayor Robert Simison said this week that he’s not at the point where he feels comfortable investing dollars in affordable housing.

He made his comments during a budget workshop where council members discussed spending money on affordable housing, particularly Jesse Tree, an organization that provides eviction and rental assistance.

There is very little affordable housing in Meridian or Ada County. For example, about 40 Meridian families apply for Jesse Tree assistance each month. To keep their services going, Executive Director Ali Rabe came to Meridian to ask for local money before the federal grant ran out.

“Food became more expensive. We do not support the Meridian Food Bank with general fund dollars,” Simison said. “I would say food insecurity is as great, if not greater. How many days can you last without food and water compared to housing? I don’t want to get into that debate.

Although Simison, a homeowner, later told the meeting that he would be more comfortable in the short term using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, his statement put him at odds with his neighbors.

In Boise, Mayor Lauren McLean has gone out of her way to recognize the importance of affordable housing and commit city resources and federal funding to the issue. And in Nampa, Mayor Debbie Kling emphasized the need for “affordable housing” in her latest city state.

Meanwhile, Simison said in his latest state of the city that Meridian is exploring what the appropriate role and responsibility of local government is when it comes to affordable housing.

In a phone interview Thursday, Simison said the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits cities from spending money on things unless the city decides it’s the city’s responsibility. However, the city of Boise is spending money on affordable housing, and when asked about that, Simison said he would have to look at what’s right for Meridian.

As for Jesse Tree, Simison questioned whether providing assistance to families through the organization would reduce overall housing costs.

“I don’t think we’re talking about enough impact,” Simison said. “Ultimately, we are limited. We don’t control land prices, we don’t control the labor market or material costs. … We are limited as a city in how we can impact overall affordability.”

However, the city can control zoning codes and where housing is built. Simison said that’s part of the conversation.

Simison said he is concerned about how the next generation of Meridian homebuyers will enter the market. He said he has advocated for more condominium-style development to help people buy and build equity, starting at a lower home price.

Asked if he has concerns about tenants, Simison said the city has a lot more rental options than before.

“I know the community is concerned about the amount of multi-family housing,” Simison said. “At the end of the day, it’s trying to find a good ratio and balance between multi-family and single-family in a community in the right places.”

Mayors respond to many different types of pressures and interests, said Stephanie Witt, a professor at Boise State University’s School of Public Service. For example, Boise has a higher visibility of the homeless.

“The city of Meridian may not be feeling the pressure of people who are currently homeless in the same way that the city of Boise is,” Witt said.

So how big is the problem in Meridian?

This story originally appeared in Idaho Press.

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