Alexandrea Van Zelf has spent most of the last two years in Boise eating baloney sandwiches and saltine crackers to save money and afford their rent. Other times, they’ve resorted to food stamps.
Across the valley, Jessica Thompson also struggled to make rent payments with her $15-an-hour wage at Scentsy Inc. She pays $1,700 a month for her two-bedroom townhouse in Meridian, where she’s a single mother to two young children.
Both Van Zelf, 22, and Thompson, 39, sought emergency rental assistance from the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities when they couldn’t make ends meet. At that point, Van Zelf had lost their job and worried about where they would land after receiving an eviction notice. Hundreds of dollars of late fees had stacked up in their mailbox.
“It saved me from being homeless and put food in my mouth,” Van Zelf told the Idaho Statesman. “I was able to spend my money on food or medical bills instead.”
The federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, known as ERAP to many of its recipients, was created in 2020 to provide rental assistance to tenants experiencing financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the program reported helping nearly 14,000 Treasure Valley households as of April.
But time is running out. The housing authorities’ rental assistance funds are dwindling, and officials there expect to exhaust their remaining aid for Boise and Ada County residents by the middle of next month.
“I’m just getting nervous as it gets a little closer,” Jillian Patterson, deputy director of the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities, told the Statesman by phone. “So many people still need help, and it’s heartbreaking.”
No more funding is expected at this point, meaning when the money is gone, it’s gone. Once that happens, Idahoans like Thompson and Van Zelf will have fewer places to turn.
Boise tenants struggle with rising rents
Since March 2020, when the pandemic struck in the United States, rent in the Boise metro area has grown by more than 37%, according to Apartment List, which tracks the national rental market. The median price of a one-bedroom apartment in Boise is currently $1,375 a month, while a two-bedroom rental is $1,595, real estate website Zillow reported.
The emergency rental assistance program, providing hundreds of millions to each state through federal pandemic relief packages, has helped offset some of the region’s escalating housing costs to keep lower-income residents housed. Meanwhile, workers in Boise have seen less take-home pay as wages have failed to keep pace with the area’s rising cost of living, further exacerbated by spiking inflation nationwide.
Thompson’s rental assistance helped cover rent every other month, which gave her some months to save money. But with the inflated price of goods and utilities, Thompson said she struggled to save even during the months when she got assistance.
Van Zeff ran into similar expenses.
“Every time I get approved for this stuff, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I could save money,’ ” they said. “And then something always happens. Like my car broke down and I had to spend a whole paycheck fixing that, and then I had to buy new tires because I have to travel for my job.”
Renters earning up to 80% of the area’s median income are eligible for the emergency aid, so long as they can prove Idaho residency and financial strain connected to the pandemic. In Ada and Canyon counties, that means annual earnings cannot exceed $47,150 for an individual or $67,350 for a family of four.
The Boise and Ada County programs prioritize helping those tenants at or below 50% of the area median income, which is the level that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as very low-income.
As federal emergency aid soon dries up, local housing advocates worry about what it could mean for those residents already on the cusp of losing their rentals. It stands to send many of them over a fiscal cliff and out onto the street, said Ali Rabe, executive director of Jesse Tree of Idaho, a nonprofit focused on homelessness prevention in the Treasure Valley.
“That funding is very much needed, not only because of the pandemic, but also because of our serious housing crisis,” Rabe, a Democratic state senator representing Boise’s Central Bench, told the Statesman by phone. “Now that those funds are running out, and nothing else is coming on the horizon from the federal government, it’s scary to think what that will look like.”
Already through April, eviction court hearings in Ada County doubled compared to the same period last year, according to Jesse Tree data. If that trend continues through the rest of this year, nearly 1,600 tenants will be at risk of being pushed out of their homes because they are unable to afford their monthly rent in the state’s most populous county. Evictions will have almost tripled since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end President Joe Biden’s extension of a ban on evictions. In Canyon County, they’ll have nearly doubled since that time.
Before it lapsed in August 2021, the federal eviction ban during the pandemic helped keep residents housed if they missed rent payments. Eviction hearings in Ada County jumped by 42% the following year, while those in Canyon County increased by more than 20%.
The federal rental assistance has acted as another backstop for those who fell behind on their rent or utilities. Through the program, qualifying households are eligible for up to 15 months of assistance in three-month chunks paid directly to a renter’s landlord or a utility provider. The money can be paid toward back rent or future payments to try to position a tenant to get ahead.
Ada County renters receive $4M in aid per month
Idaho initially received $200 million in federal rental assistance under a pandemic relief package approved by former President Donald Trump. Boise and Ada County split $24 million from that total for their residents, and dedicated the funds to the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities to manage, while the state’s remaining $176 million was overseen by the Idaho Housing and Finance Association.
The need in Boise and Ada County was so great that the housing authority disbursed all of that money in less than a year, said Patterson, the agency’s deputy director. By the end, the state program had $62 million to distribute.
Because the statewide program distributed the funds at a slower clip, the U.S. Treasury recaptured tens of millions of dollars of federal assistance from Idaho for reallocation across the U.S., as the Statesman previously reported. The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities received another $12.5 million through that process and again spent those funds by the end of last year.
In a follow-up relief package under Biden, Idaho received another $152 million in assistance for at-risk renters. In total, the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities received nearly $37 million of those funds to administer the emergency aid program for the city and county. About $9 million of the state’s pot was designated for Canyon County.
Boise held onto about $6.3 million of the federal money and Ada County about $4.2 million to make investments in developing affordable housing, per allowances by the Treasury.
Meanwhile, the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities program has again distributed the majority of its assistance funds to tenants, handing out an average of almost $4 million per month, Patterson said. Through April, the program had about $5 million remaining, leading the agency to project fully depleting the critical resource for lower-income Boise and Ada County renters financially affected by the pandemic by mid-June.
For those tenants who again fall behind on rent or utility payments and end up desperately scrambling for help, Patterson wonders about where they’ll be able to go to avoid potential eviction.
“It’s a good question,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I just know that we’re all thinking about it and really working hard to do what we can to help people.”
Patterson said she sees the need for more financial education to help renters better understand how to manage their monthly budget, and how much they can afford to pay in rent. But wages in and around Boise have failed to keep up with monthly rental hikes, Patterson said. She fears the net result when there’s nowhere else for renters to turn will be a rise in area homelessness.
“I could see that happening,” Patterson said. “We all know what that kind of does for our economy here … how much it costs communities for somebody to be homeless.”
Rabe hopes to see the state step up next legislative session to be part of a solution to avert the anticipated spike of people experiencing homelessness, especially across the Treasure Valley. She said she would like to see Idaho, which has had a record budget surplus the past two years, dedicate money to fill some of the void that will be left when the federal rental assistance program comes to an end.
But recognizing the usual priorities of a majority of her Idaho Legislature peers — many of whom from the beginning opposed accepting COVID-19 pandemic relief aid for rental assistance — Rabe plans to enter those discussions with a dose of skepticism.
“The federal government already said it won’t re-up the programs, and so I encourage local and state programs to get up and running,” she said. “But I don’t know if it will happen or what that would look like — here in Idaho anyway.”
Lawmakers help renters avoid exorbitant late fees
Without emergency rental assistance, struggling Idahoans’ only options for housing help are Section 8 housing vouchers, which landlords in Boise rarely accept in such a hot rental market, or assistance from Jesse Tree.
Last session, Rabe sponsored a bill passed into law that limits landlords to only charging late fees on rent that are “reasonable” and clearly stated in lease agreements. The new regulation goes into effect July 1 and will give tenants legal recourse to challenge exorbitant fees in small claims court, Rabe said during the session.
Jesse Tree has seen exorbitant late fees add up and cause a lot of evictions, Rabe said.
“Rental fees are a huge problem right now, and I do think this will help quite a bit in addressing the problem,” she said. “It just provides tenants with more protections around the issue and landlords clearer guidance on what they can and can’t charge a tenant.”
When they finally sought assistance, Van Zelf had hundreds of dollars in late-rent fees due. Their landlord charged $10 for every day rent was late and $75 by the 10th day it was late.
Rental assistance takes ’huge weight off your shoulders’
Van Zelf received 15 months of rental assistance from the housing authorities, and the aid will pay their rent until the end of July.
By the time they realized assistance was available, Van Zelf had lost their job at a cellphone retailer and could barely afford their $1,235 monthly rent for their studio apartment.
“There were a few times when it was pushing me to the limits,” Van Zelf said. “But having rental assistance and knowing that a safety net is available to people — it’s like a huge weight off your shoulders knowing that you don’t have to pay rent this month.”
The lease at their apartment near Boise State ends in August, and Van Zelf described the thought of losing that rental assistance safety net with one word: “terrifying.”
Van Zelf is making plans to ensure they don’t need that safety net in the future. They have a new job working for an assisted living and disability services organization and plan to move out of their apartment in August into a new place with a roommate. But rental prices in Boise are not sustainable for Van Zelf, and they plan to move out of state after another year of renting.
Van Zelf fears that without the help this year, they would’ve ended up homeless and unable to pay for meals and medical bills — or worse.
“If I didn’t have help, I probably would have had a funeral by now,” Van Zelf said.
Residents of Ada County, including the city of Boise, can apply for emergency rental assistance at: https://erap.bcacha.org.