In her best-selling book Biomimicry, Janine M. Benyus describes the human quest to learn from nature. We want to employ the qualities of spider silk, gecko feet and sharkskin in new materials or the structural efficiency of paper wasp nests and honeycombs in our designs. But it was the chapter about natural systems that got me thinking about community stability.
Benyus compares local economies to an ecosystem, where species evolve to fill niches vital to the sustainability of a grassland, forest or tide pool. Relationships evolve over time to create health and stability. As long as there is balance, the system endures.
And a mix of housing types and price points is essential to a community’s ecosystem.
Pick up any record of human civilization and you’ll read about a basic ‘species’ of housing: the boarding house or inn. This let folks new to town or short on cash establish a temporary base from which they could hold down a job, receive mail and have a measure of privacy. Some were artists, writers or musicians, while others joined the local labor force. Whatever the name — residential hotel, rooming house or YMCA — these simple, affordable spaces filled an important niche…
Now that the boarding house has become an endangered species, those at the lowest income levels are forced to double up with others or live in substandard housing. They share dilapidated trailers in badly managed ‘parks’ or find run-down rentals in locations that people with higher incomes wouldn’t go near. Otherwise, they’re homeless.
While the resulting building codes and federal housing policies set a high — and costly — bar for those trying to build new subsidized housing units, existing low-cost housing is often plagued by code violations like mold, inoperable plumbing and heating systems and other life-safety hazards. Tenants can complain and risk eviction or retaliation, or they can endure and try to find something better. No complaints, no code enforcement.
The supreme irony is that many poor people continue to live in overcrowded and unsafe conditions that housing and finance policies sought to correct in the first place.
Boise’s construction boom includes new downtown residential developments, with rents ranging from $900 for a studio to $1,300 for a two-bedroom unit. If you can find one, older rentals start at $650. An individual working full time at Idaho’s minimum hourly wage of $7.25 can afford no more than $377 in rent. It’s basic math, not rocket science….
But most planning and building ordinances still reflect the thinking that eliminated lower-cost options and led to gentrification in the first place. The trick is to preserve safety and aesthetics, while supporting efforts to keep costs of construction in check and still cover the costs of service delivery and infrastructure. Idaho planners and policy makers are grappling with these issues, and they want to get it right.
It will require effort on the part of policymakers, housing developers and even private citizens to cultivate heirloom housing types like the boarding house, although the new versions will feature shared wifi, espresso machines and bike-friendly, super-efficient green building amenities. Think of it as co-housing for the working poor and the creative class that make cities more stable and interesting.