Who can even afford to live in Meridian? Families are in overcrowded homes, study shows

Meridian does not have enough housing to meet the need, leading to cost-burdened families and children, according to a new Boise State University study.

The study from four Boise State University students, who are part of a team researching housing in the Treasure Valley, showed Meridian had an extremely low vacancy rate for housing — 0.5% last month — that’s pushing costs up and driving lower- and middle-income residents out of the city.

The Boise State students — Faith Spaulding, Kristi Spalding, Sunny Smart and Shiva Rajbhandari — presented the findings of their housing analysis to the Meridian City Council on Tuesday. The group worked under Dr. Vanessa Fry, a Boise State professor, as part of a project focused on better understanding the housing crisis in the Treasure Valley.

The students compared Meridian’s comprehensive plan, which is a multi-year plan for growth in the city, to the realities of what residents are facing. Meridian’s plan includes goals to be adaptable to resident needs and remain family-friendly as the population grows. In contrast, the study found that many workers don’t live in Meridian, and that families concentrated around Meridian schools are often living in overcrowded homes.

Jessica Perreault, a Meridian City Council member, asked the research team to study Meridian and present their findings after she was tasked to look for data on the shortage of affordable housing. City officials said they hoped the data would help them better understand Meridian’s housing problem and what could be done by the City Council.

“The city of Meridian could help evolve its existing policy to take the pressure off of low-income households and cost-burdened households in order to keep it more livable for families,” Rajbhandari said during the presentation.

Meridian has low vacancy, expensive rentals

Over 7,500 residents in Meridian are in poverty, and 6.8% of Meridian residents under 18 years old live in poverty, the students said, citing data from the American Community Survey from 2020.

Meridian residents in poverty often move to cheaper cities or live in vehicles because there are few affordable options, said Smart, who talked to the West Ada School District staff about what they are seeing happen to poor families and students.

A “healthy housing market vacancy rate” is 4-5%, Spalding said in the presentation. According to the Idaho Policy Institute, the vacancy rate in Meridian is 0.5%, which indicates there is not enough supply to meet demand.

The fair market rent for Ada County, set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is $1,059 for a one-bedroom and $1,310 for a two-bedroom unit. Spalding said only 16 apartments and seven homes are for rent in Meridian that are at the fair market rent. There are 253 rental listings on Zillow in Meridian.

Boise State students found there are only 16 apartments and seven homes for rent in Meridian that are at the fair market rent. City of Meridian
Boise State students found there are only 16 apartments and seven homes for rent in Meridian that are at the fair market rent. City of Meridian

“Since there’s limited availability in Meridian right now, it means that people who are looking to move to Meridian often can’t, because things aren’t in their price range or there’s not anything available,” Spalding told the council.

Most workers in Meridian live elsewhere

The U.S. Census Bureau collects data on the characteristics of workers who commute into, out of, and within a given city. According to the 2020 census, the majority of workers who are employed in Meridian live outside of Meridian.

“This data shows us that residents of Meridian tend to earn more money each month when they work outside of Meridian than those who both live and work in Meridian,” Faith Spaulding said in the presentation.

Spaulding said if Meridian wants to attract more small businesses to its growing city, it must be able to house people who make around minimum wage.

“And we’re not currently seeing that in the status quo,” she said.

When low-wage workers are living in Meridian, they are sometimes living in overcrowded homes, meaning one or more people per room in a household. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a “room” as not just bedrooms but any rooms where someone could sleep.

The 2021 American Community Survey found 595 overcrowded households in Meridian. Of those households, 60 were severely overcrowded, which means it had one-and-a-half people per room in the household. Another 70 were extremely overcrowded, with two or more people per room.

Smart said all of the extremely overcrowded households were rentals.

Meridian children living in overcrowded homes

Smart found that the overcrowded households in Meridian were concentrated near West Ada schools.

“For children who live and grow up in overcrowded conditions, their outcomes are much poorer with mental health, physical health and school achievement,” Smart said.

The Boise State researchers used data from West Ada to determine the number of students in Meridian who qualify as homeless under federal definitions. They found 342 homeless students in Meridian, 304 of whom were living in overcrowded households.

At the end of the presentation, Rajbhandari, who also sits on the Boise School District Board of Trustees, suggested policy changes to address the affordable housing problem in Meridian. He suggested rental assistance for cost-burdened households in Meridian and subsidizing affordable housing projects so developers are incentivized to build more. He also said the city could rezone areas near the freeway to allow more multifamily projects to be built along high traffic areas.

Last summer Meridian allocated money to Jesse Tree to help provide rental assistance and eviction support to Meridian residents. After that, Perreault began doing her own research about what the city could do to support cost-burdened families.

“It would be wise for the city to put together some sort of guidelines for how we’ll respond … in the future,” she said.

After the presentation, John Overton, a Meridian City Council member, said he was “alarmed” at the number of homeless people in Meridian. He also questioned the different definitions that the federal government uses to define homelessness.

“Even people living with someone else in someone else’s home are listed as homeless,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in that group of homeless under (the school district’s definition) that aren’t the traditional definition of homeless.”

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