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‘It’s like I’m a ghost’: Boise City Council member says she’s not included in housing talks

Oct. 14, 2022 Updated Fri., Oct. 14, 2022 at 7:55 p.m.

Boise City Councilwoman Lisa Sánchez is the only Latina on the council.  (Idaho Statesman)
Boise City Councilwoman Lisa Sánchez is the only Latina on the council. (Idaho Statesman)
By Ian Max Stevenson Idaho Statesman

Council Member Lisa Sánchez expressed frustration at a Boise City Council meeting, saying that she – the only Latina on the council – had been excluded from conversations about housing policy in the quickly growing city, even after asking other elected city officials for more involvement.

Council President Elaine Clegg denied that Sánchez has been excluded from housing policy decisions and said that Sánchez is, along with Council President Pro Tem Holli Woodings, an unofficial liaison on housing issues. She also said that policy decisions are made at the council’s public meetings, where the whole council is involved.

But in a phone interview, Sánchez told the Idaho Statesman that she is frustrated with the leaders of the council, who she thinks have left her out of backroom decision-making and have not included her in discussions about affordable housing and other issues.

“Whatever political game that I’m supposed to be playing, I don’t have time for it and neither does my community,” Sánchez said.

‘Like I’m a ghost’

On Tuesday afternoon, the mayor’s housing adviser, Nicki Olivier Hellenkamp, presented to the council findings from an Urban Land Institute technical assistance panel that convened in May to examine housing affordability issues in Boise. The city commissioned the panel, which included local and national experts.

Boise paid $10,000 for the study, an amount matched by the Terwilliger Center for Housing, which is part of the institute, a city spokesperson, Maria Weeg, told the Statesman by email.

The Urban Land Institute is regularly commissioned by locales, developers or others to examine urban planning and related issues. A recent panel studied future development in Garden City.

During Hellenkamp’s presentation, Sánchez said she became frustrated when she saw who had been interviewed by the panel, which included Mayor Lauren McLean, Clegg, Woodings and Council Member Jimmy Hallyburton, according to the final report.

Sánchez was elected in 2017 in an at-large race and re-elected in last November’s first council elections by district. She represents District 3, including the North End, Northwest Boise, Veterans Park and Collister neighborhoods.

The other council members not interviewed by the panel were Patrick Bageant, elected citywide in 2019, and Luci Willits, who was elected last year in District 1 in West Boise.

Boise Planning Director Tim Keane and Deputy Police Chief Tammany Brooks were also interviewed by the Urban Land Institute, as were other local officials, including Ada County Commissioner Kendra Kenyon and Garden City Mayor John Evans.

“As I read through the list of people involved in this, I had to wonder why the only renter on the Boise City Council wasn’t invited to be a part of this, why the only person of color on the Boise City Council wasn’t a part of this, why somebody who lost their home to foreclosure in 2010 wasn’t a part of this,” she said.

“Moving forward, I would like to just say to the mayor, to my colleagues, that I would like to be part of these conversations … I don’t know how I access space in those rooms. If I’m not in those rooms it’s not because I don’t want to be,” she said.

After Sánchez spoke, McLean pointed out that Urban Land Institute panels are run independently, and that the city did not decide who would be interviewed.

“I just want to make clear that this was not something that was organized by Nicki or staff, but was organized by an outside panel,” McLean said. “So I appreciate your statement and your interest in being involved and we register that, but at a time when staff was presenting a report that was done by an outside agency, I’d prefer that that was brought to me.”

Sánchez responded, “The only way at times that I feel that I’m heard is if I do it publicly. I have repeatedly asked to be part of conversations like this, and it’s like I’m a ghost.”

On Wednesday, Sánchez told the Statesman that “there were so many people associated with the city who could have made a note” about inviting her to participate. She noted that she has more experience than some of the council members who were included, like Jimmy Hallyburton, who was elected in 2019.

“I’m not somebody sitting in the corner with my knitting needles. I am a member of the Boise City Council,” she said.

Sánchez added that she does not think her colleagues have malicious intent, but that she feels it is her responsibility to speak for her constituents.

“I have to speak out when I feel that the system is not honoring the wishes of the community, and that is that the perspective that I bring be welcomed,” she said, noting that people of color face housing discrimination and other unfairness and injustice, which Sánchez has a personal perspective on.

“It affects every part of our life, it affects where we live, how much we pay for rent, how much we’re charged in interest, whether or not our neighbors are kind to us,” she told the Statesman. There are “so many factors of our life that are affected by a dominant culture imposing its will over us. The only way this is going to change is if people like myself are brave, bold and courageous and willing to speak out alone against it.”

In a Wednesday email to Sánchez, the executive director of the Idaho District Council of the Urban Land Institute, Karlee May, said all council members had initially been invited to the panel, and only three responded.

In a follow-up text to the Statesman , Sánchez said she wasn’t sure about what happened with the panel invitation, but that “there is a long history of me being excluded from important meetings and work at the city.”

In an email, Woodings echoed McLean’s point that neither the council nor anyone else at City Hall had input into who was included in the panel.

“All other policy discussions around housing have been happening with the full council involved, largely at work sessions,” she said.

Clegg told the Statesman by phone that she recalled being invited by email to participate in the panel, and that the tenor of the email made her think that all council members had been invited. She said she may have briefly discussed the panel with Woodings but doesn’t recall further conversations about it among council members.

“I feel bad if (Sánchez) didn’t see or didn’t get invited to participate in this,” Clegg said. “It would have been great for her perspective to be part of it. I’m sorry that for whatever reason that didn’t happen.”

She noted that Sánchez and Woodings are, as of this year, the two council members tasked with being the unofficial liaisons for housing issues between the council and the city, and that Clegg specifically made Sánchez one of the liaisons because she knows of her interest in the topic. City staff members manage day-to-day housing issues independently from the council, but Clegg said all questions about policy come before the council.

Clegg also noted that sometimes the mayor’s leadership team will bring issues to council leaders first, after which a decision is made about whether to discuss them with the entire council.

Some of the city’s housing programs are run through a partnership called the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities, of which Clegg is an ex-officio commissioner. The two authorities are run as one. Clegg said she is a commissioner mostly to communicate between the housing authorities and the council and to share “policy leanings” that the council has.

Referring to other venues where decisions are made, she said “I don’t know of any of those places.”

Discussions about housing

In her five years on the council, Sánchez told the Statesman, she has thought that she is often not included in important city decision making, noting that “these decisions are made in some magical, mystical place that I’m not invited to.”

She said she told both former Mayor David Bieter and McLean that she was interested in joining the board of the Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency. Its commissioners are selected by the mayor. McLean appointed herself to the board, as did Bieter, who served on it until recently.

“I serve with people, I think they identify as progressive, and I believe one of the progressive values is diversity and inclusion,” Sánchez said. She noted that she spearheaded the city’s 2019 ordinance capping the fees residents can be charged for rental applications, which she said did not receive the same level of promotion from the city as the city’s animal welfare reforms, which were pushed by former Council Member T.J. Thomson.

Sánchez said both were important, and that she plans to introduce another fee-related ordinance in the future.

Loss of pro tem leadership role

Every year, the council elects a president and a president pro tem, the secondary leadership position. In January 2020, Thomson nominated Woodings to be pro tem. During discussion, Sánchez said publicly that she needed the other council members to “welcome her” to City Hall for her to succeed, and she asked Woodings to mentor her for a year before nominating Sánchez as pro tem the following year, in 2021.

In a tense moment, according to previous Statesman reporting, Woodings said she felt “put on the spot” and did not commit to nominating Sánchez in the future, though she said that she would “commit to helping you continue that growth in your service to the city of Boise.”

Woodings was unanimously elected pro tem that year. In 2021, Sánchez was unanimously elected pro tem, which she told the Statesman happened only because she was publicly vocal about her interest in the position.

On Wednesday, Sánchez told the Statesman that Woodings approached her after the November 2021 elections, saying that she was again interested in being pro tem.

Sánchez said she asked Woodings why she didn’t pursue the council president role, to which Woodings responded that she didn’t feel ready.

“I said OK, you’re asking the only person of color, the only renter, to give up a leadership role because you want it back,” Sánchez told the Statesman. “If that’s going to be the case, I would like you to make sure I’m included in those discussions” about important city issues.

Sánchez said that Woodings said she didn’t know what those rooms are.

Sánchez said she also didn’t know, but that Woodings would “know what those rooms are because you’re going to be in council leadership.”

“If there’s a room that it makes sense I be in, help me get in that room,” she said.

Next year, she said she needs to “not give in so easily” when giving up a chance for a leadership role.

In her email, Woodings said she couldn’t recall the details of leadership conversations she had with Sánchez. But she told the Statesman by phone that “Any allegation that I would trade a privilege of having more access to policy discussions in order to get a vote for leadership is false. That is not how I do business. It’s not ethical.”

What did the housing report find?

The panel’s report found that the city should do more to address housing needs, including by publishing a five-year housing plan, partnering with other agencies, providing more permanent supportive housing – which gives chronically homeless people a place to live along with social services – encouraging more affordable housing to be built, and financing a housing investment fund.

Hellenkamp summarized the report by saying its findings were: “Don’t stop, keep going.”

“In general, we’re on the right track with the work that we’re doing to produce and preserve affordable housing … We can continue to learn and grow and improve our approach,” she said.

Two of the panel’s six members were local: Vanessa Fry, a professor at Boise State University’s School of Public Service, and Cameron Arial, the president and CEO of Clearwater Financial, in Eagle.

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