Idaho’s housing problem could soon be worse

Well, the Wall Street Journal featured an article about Idaho last week that wasn’t about our wildfires, high grass prices, or low vaccination rate.  

It was about a Ketchum worker making $60,000 a year who’d been living in his SUV for six weeks because he couldn’t find an affordable place to live. According to the WSJ, the problem was the result of “a rush of new residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, growing demand for workers during the economic boom that has followed, and a shortage of affordable homes that was years in the making.” (That “rush of new residents” is most likely remote workers and early retirees.) 

Yeah, tell us about it. 

ForRent.com lists 15 rental addresses–apartments and houses–available in Caldwell. Only five rent for $1500 a month or less. A person–or a couple–making $24 an hour might have five units to choose from, unless someone else in this city of 55,000 rented them first.

Nampa and Boise each have about 22 rentals listed with 9 under $1500.  (Portland has six units under $1500.)

And buying is even more out of reach. The Idaho Dept. of Labor says the cost of Idaho homes has increased 73% in the last five years, while wages increased 14%. 

Some renters I’ve talked with lately are having a rough time. 

Some report rent increases of $300 per month. Idaho law not only allows increases of any amount, but also prevents local government units from making such regulations (SECTION 55-307, IDAHO CODE).

Some report payments for background checks totalling nearly $1000. Idaho has no limit on what landlords may charge and, as far as I can find, no requirement that the report actually be applied for. That is, a landlord with one unit for rent could collect a $50 fee from dozens of applicants and then test only two or three. 

And this year, members of the House killed a bill which would have required that rental fees be revealed in rental contracts (SB1088).. Can you imagine if fees were not revealed in contracts for purchasing houses?

And the end of the COVID-19 ban on evictions on July 31 can only make things worse.  .

We don’t know just how many Idahoans will end up on the street, not only too poor to afford rent, but with bad credit ratings. It’d be far worse without souped up unemployment payments and grants to some landlords. Still, we are not prepared for the slightest increase in homelessness.  

The Idaho legislature has never appropriated money for the trust fund set up in 1992 to help finance affordable housing. Even this year–while the legislature knew landlords were paying mortgages on homes where they couldn’t collect rent–the subject never came up. 

Idaho does have three housing authorities working primarily with federal money, mostly from HUD. One serves Boise City/Ada County; another, the nine counties from Owyhee County north to Camas and Valley; and a third, our 34 other counties. 

It’s likely, however, that a sudden increase in homelessness would overwhelm each agency. Although the Boise City/Ada County is accepting applications for the market rate apartments, waiting lists for the subsidized housing units are closed. 

Idaho has been remiss in planning for workers. We could have required a percent of housing to be affordable to workers making 150% of the minimum wage. But few could have predicted that house prices would rise as fast and as far as they have. 

We need to come up with ways to add housing quickly.   

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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