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As Idaho Falls grows more and more, the focus turns to connectivity

Idaho Falls has seen substantial growth over the last decade in terms of both new residents and new businesses, but its population growth kicked into even higher gear following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That growth, combined with national and global economic pressures, has strained the housing market’s availability and affordability. Working toward a solution, local leaders are advocating for more housing options than just traditional single-family homes to help meet demand. Part of the effort also involves encouraging developers to add housing within commercial developments in order to take advantage of the infrastructure — utilities and roads — facilitating the commercial growth.

As an example, Jackson Hole Junction has introduced 224 units at the Pioneer Crossing apartment complex as part of its commercial development.

“Let’s use the space that we’ve already got utilities to or got the infrastructure to first, and then let’s look at some of those outside areas,” said Kerry Beutler, assistant planning director for the city of Idaho Falls.

The goal is to introduce more of the missing middle into neighborhoods with different housing types such as duplexes, townhomes and smaller apartment units. According to Beutler, this is part of the comprehensive plan to integrate this mixed-use approach in every neighborhood and keep the small-town feel, instead of the far end such as five-story apartment complexes.

“The residents said loud and clear, ‘We want to be more connected,’” Beutler said.

Infill development has the added advantage of reducing sprawl while also increasing connectivity.

Since 2020, Idaho Falls has seen a 4.8% population increase, meaning more than 2,905 new residents call this place home. To meet demand, there have been more than 2,205 permits issued from January 2020 through July of this year for variety of housing types, from single dwellings to apartments.

The city’s 2022-2023 development stage report on current projects shows there were 665 new housing units built and occupied during that time frame, city officials said. Most of that new housing construction consisted of multifamily units — 360 apartments and 209 townhomes — with 96 single-family homes equating to 14% of the total.

“One thing that we’re seeing with growth is a little bit of diversity in our housing stock that we didn’t have before,” Beutler said.

Idaho Falls is not unique in seeing an increase in apartments being built.

Lawrence Yun, the chief economist and senior vice president of research at the National Association of Realtors, told attendees at the Idaho Realtors Convention this month that apartment construction nationwide is at a 40-year high.

But even with the uptick in residential construction the Idaho Falls market has struggled to keep up with demand.

Up for Growth, a tax-exempt national housing policy research and advocacy organization, this month released a study of housing trends that found housing underproduction in Idaho reached a shortage of 41,853 homes in 2021, earning a second-place ranking nationally for the severity of its housing deficit. In Idaho Falls that translates to a 2021 shortage of 2,310 housing units, increasing the share of “cost-burdened” renters to 34%.

Jacob Grant Property Management reported that between 2018 and 2020 average rents in Idaho Falls increased 27.85%. In 2020, the average rental costs in Idaho Falls for a one-bedroom apartment was $560. It was $797 for a two-bedroom and $857 for a three-bedroom, according to figures from the property manager.

According to the online housing platform on Oct. 21 the median rent cost of a single bedroom apartment in Idaho Falls is $795, a two-bedroom is $1,050 and a three-bedroom is a $1,473.

Of the 336 Idaho Falls apartments listed Thursday on just four were listed for less than $1,050 per month.

Beutler said the city has been working on an action plan to address the challenges of affordability and availability.

“We created sort of a Housing Coalition and one of the main outcomes of that group was trying to create housing diversity and housing options in every neighborhood, so that people could choose to live in any part of the city,” Beutler said.

Part of the city’s action plan is to open up zoning to offer more choice in the types of housing that can be built in more areas within the city, Beutler said.

“The hope was that we would get two affordable options, and then the economy shifted, and the market changed, and what was once considered affordable, you just can’t find with anything,” Beutler said.

One action the city council approved in April 2022 was to amend the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance to allow accessory dwelling units or ADUs in all residential zones within the city. Accessory dwelling units already were allowed in nearly all the city’s residential zones prior to the change. ADUs also help with the city’s goal of infill development.

Beutler said that there has been interest in accessory dwelling units, but have had around 10 permits issued since the change.

“In order to have an accessory dwelling unit you as the property owner have to either live in the accessory dwelling unit or the main house,” Beutler said

This is done to prevent homeowners from becoming landlords and turning both residences into rental units, according to Beutler.

Recently, construction began on a new 156 income-restricted apartments complex, which aims to help address the city’s lack of affordable housing.

Tailwater Managing Director Blake Jumper, whose company is building the Black Feather apartments on the 600 block of West Anderson Street next to A.H. Bush Elementary School, told the Post Register that finding affordable housing has become extremely difficult.

“What we’ve seen whether it’s in Idaho or surrounding states is the way costs have increased, rental rates have increased — it’s a much needed thing,” Jumper said.

There has been a bigger push for apartments due to the rising costs of homes in the area.

Century 21 High Desert real estate agent Julie Winn said the median home price in September 2023 was $379,450. In October 2020, Snake River Regional MLS listed the the median sale price of a home in Bonneville County as $294,750. The average price of homes in Idaho Falls had topped $405,000 in 2022, but that was before the Federal Reserve implemented several interest rate hikes in an effort to tame inflation.

TOK Commercial Eastern Idaho brokerage services specialist Brent Wilson said single-family homes are currently beyond the financial reach of many families in Bonneville County, which has caused a surge in apartment construction.

“Those (apartments) are occurring in every part of the city, whether north, south, east, west, we’re seeing those out on the fringe (of town), and we’re seeing those infill and the city is as well,” Beutler said.

The increase in the number of apartment complexes being built in Idaho Falls recently became a topic of debate among city council candidates with challenger Dawna Howard claiming there are too many.

Incumbent John Radford argued that the city’s role is to mitigate the inevitable population growth and to ensure residents have the services to go with it.

Infill development can help alleviate some of those strains by making services more accessible.

An example can be seen in Fairway Estates, where there are more commercial buildings to ensure that there is walkability, by bringing grocery stores closer to allow residents to walk or bike instead of driving to across town.

Beutler said connectivity isn’t about removing the vehicles but thinking about walking to get your groceries or being able to bike to work.

“We need to bring them (residents) closer together to where the people are, so they have the choice whether to drive or take a scooter or walk,” Beutler said.

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