A New Mayor Champions Keeping COVID-Impacted Families In Their Homes
BOISE, Idaho – To the outsider, it seems like a movie that has a bizarre twist just as the heroine should be taking her victory lap.
Lauren Stein McLean, an entrepreneur who had served on Boise, Idaho’s city council for nearly a decade, and served as council president for two of those years, had just won the city’s mayoral race.
To do so, she had to prevail in a general election in which she was running against incumbent Dave Beiter, former Mayor H. Brent Coles, and others, and then she decisively won a December runoff election.
In the latter contest, she bested Bieter, 65.5% to 34.5%, and in the process the NewDEAL leader became the first woman ever elected mayor of the western Capitol city.
Then, just a few weeks after her inauguration, McLean got a phone call from a friend in Chicago.
“This friend is a doctor and said, there’s something going on I really ought to be watching. Within a week, the whole world had changed,” she told The Well News earlier this week.
“I mean, literally, I had just gotten here,” she continued. “I think at that point, I had only hired three of an anticipated 13 staffers and was really just learning how all the various systems of city hall worked.
“And suddenly – unexpectedly – there was COVID-19 and it definitely shaped our first year,” she said.
Though it would be another six weeks before City Hall closed, McClean was determined not to let campaign promises related to government transparency and expanding public services fall by the wayside.
“Those first few weeks were really about adapting and figuring out how I was going to stay accessible to the public and able to connect with them,” she said.
“And of course, Zoom was a big part of that,” McLean said. “I started out planning on doing listening sessions with my constituents on a monthly basis, and I kept to that, though in a different way than I anticipated when I was elected.
“At the same time, the big issues that I campaigned on remained,” she continued. “Affordable housing, being a big one. And along with those issues, I still held onto the belief that we needed to be willing to try new things – and not being afraid of them not working. But instead to be glad we tried.”
Like many state capitals, Boise’s economy rests on state government employment, health care, the presence of a large public university, a thriving tech sector and a large service industry. There is also a sizable agricultural industry in and around the city.
“The problem, long before COVID hit, is that wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living,” McLean said. “Our economy has grown and that’s inspired people to want to move here. But what we’ve recognized is that if we want our economy to grow further, we’ve got to address affordable housing.”
A recent study from Apartment List stated that the City of Boise had one of the largest increases in median rent in the nation over the last year. Median rent went up 12% from $931 in 2020 to $1,047 in 2021.
“What COVID did was really shed a light on our needs in respect to affordable housing, and also in transportation,” she said. “We’ve grown so much as a community that we’re really behind in infrastructure investments. We need to do more to connect people and their homes to opportunities so they can grow their life here.”
Part of realizing some of these goals also includes growing the area’s clean energy economy, which McLean said will provide the jobs – and tax revenues of the future. And that comports well with another of the mayor’s goals: continuing to grow the city’s health care sector.
“So, these are some of the things we’ve been juggling along with the pandemic,” McLean said.
Earlier this month, McLean and the Boise City Council unanimously approved the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help residents who struggle to pay rent or utility bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To fund the program, the city will tap the $11.5 million in grant funding it has received from the U.S. Treasury Department as part of the second COVID relief package.
Community members who rent their residence can apply for grants to cover their cost of rent, electricity, gas, water and sewage, trash bills, and additional energy costs such as fuel oil. Landlords are also able to apply for the program on behalf of their tenants.
Explaining the rationale behind the legislation, McLean said, “We know that our residents have been hurting during this pandemic, and we also know that the best way to prevent homelessness is to create a way for their families to stay in their homes.
“What we’ve done is create a program that will help them pay up to 80% of their utility bills if they’ve fallen behind, and also help them pay their rent,” she said. “If we can keep them housed, then we can focus on others who are desperately in need of homes of their own.”
McLean said she’s been lucky to work with other elected officials who not only recognized the affordable housing problem, but who were also willing to try to address the problem “with a bunch of different tools.”
“This program came about in partnership with Ada County, which is where Boise is located, and we partnered with the Boise City Ada County Housing Authority to administer the grants,” she said.
“So what happens is, an individual will go to the Housing Authority, get a walkthrough of how to apply for funds, and then, if they qualify, the funds are disbursed relatively quickly,” she added.
To qualify for assistance through the Boise Emergency Rental Assistance Program applicants must reside in the city or Ada County, they must not have an income that exceeds the area median income, they must have a rental agreement or lease, and finally, must be able to show a COVID-19-related economic impact.
Right now, McLean is among those local leaders who is looking to Washington to see how the next stimulus bill shakes out.
“Obviously, the more funds that are made available, the more you can do, and what we’ve been advocating for in the next stimulus is funding that will enable us to secure funds for those experiencing homelessness,” she said. “If the feds are willing, we’re ready to acquire, rehab or construct new affordable housing in a community that really needs it.”
The inevitable question is whether once an emergency program is started, there’s ever truly, an end to it.
It’s a question McLean is mindful of.
“All of this is related to the emergency we’re in, from a funding perspective,” she said.
“At the same time, we’re also demonstrating that there may be other tools we can use to address the affordable housing crisis here over the long term.
“That includes our Housing Land Trust, through which we’ve put land out for affordable housing development. Simply by rewriting our zoning code, we’ve developed an incentive program for affordable housing,” she said. “And we’ve also signaled a willingness to negotiate with builders to include affordable housing in their plans; if they do, we’ll work with them on things like parking requirements and other things they care about.
“All that said, we saw the Emergency Rental Assistance Program as a really important stopgap measure in partnership with the federal government, which granted the funds, and then working locally to leverage the relationships between our city and the housing authority to support our residents.”