The Idaho Housing and Finance Association plans to pause applications for emergency rental assistance funds on Dec. 29 because federal funds are quickly running dry for areas beyond Ada County — a problem the agency hopes the Idaho Legislature can help with in January.
The Emergency Rental Assistance program is meant to help individuals who need help with rent or utilities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s retroactive or future rent and utilities. An applicants’ income must not exceed 80% of the area median income, and they must provide a statement from a landlord indicating past rent or a bill from a utility company. The assistance lasts a maximum of 18 months, and payments are sent directly to landlords or utility companies to keep accounts current.
The Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s program is applicable to all Idahoans who live outside of Ada County. The agency partners with other community organizations across the state to help identify those who need assistance.
The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority does not plan on pausing its applications, and estimates it can continue to provide assistance until at least June.
Jason Lantz, marketing and communications director of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, said the organization hopes to open applications again in January if the Legislature approves an additional funding request of $15.4 million for fiscal year 2023. That would allow the association to continue to spend funds in January rather than having to wait until the 2024 fiscal year. The extra funding would allow the program to continue for a few more months, Lantz said.
During the 2022 legislative session, the Idaho Legislature approved $38 million from the $53.5 million available to Idaho in the Emergency Rental Assistance funding. It passed the House with a vote of 37-33, and 29-5 in the Senate. That $38 million is expected to be exhausted over the next month.
“If supplemental funds aren’t approved, then we’ll be forced to close the program, period,” Lantz said. “If supplemental funds are appropriated, then we hope this pause will be temporary and we’ll be able to provide at least a few months of additional assistance.”
Monthly distributions to Idaho renters doubled with new round of funding
The funds are part of a second round of rental assistance funds from federal dollars meant to assist states and local governments in the wake of the COVID pandemic. The association had to relinquish a large share of the first round of assistance back to the U.S. Department of the Treasury because it was too much — Idaho received $200 million in funds, $24 million of which went to the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority with the remaining $176 million allocated to Idaho Housing and Finance.
The first rollout was a brand-new program from the federal government, Lantz said, and it had different eligibility requirements and other factors that made it more difficult to distribute, on top of the fact that it was more money than the association could have ever spent in the allotted time frame.
With the first program, the association was distributing about $2.6 million per month, according to Lantz, and with the second round, it has doubled to $5.2 million. Between the two rounds of funding, the association has assisted 24,000 families across Idaho with $81.5 million.
“Under ERA 1, you had to be directly affected by COVID, and for ERA 2, you had to be ‘adversely affected during the pandemic,’” Lantz said. “That one kind of nuance opened the door to a lot more people and obviously accounted for that significant increase in demand.”
Gov. Brad Little will recommend approving supplemental budget, press secretary says
Prior to the beginning of the legislative session, the governor makes budget recommendations to the Legislature for various state agencies. Madison Hardy, Gov. Brad Little’s press secretary, told the Idaho Capital Sun in an email that Little plans to include the supplemental request in the Division of Financial Management’s budget.
“Governor Little’s budget recommendations for the upcoming legislative session include a request to direct supplemental ERA 2 funding toward the Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program,” Hardy said.
The supplemental request will first need approval from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, a committee with only seven of 20 members returning from the previous year. Sen. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, is the incoming co-chairman of JFAC and said he is aware of the supplemental request, and it will be one of the first agenda items for the committee to address in January.
But whether it will pass either the committee or the full House and Senate is an open question, Grow said. Everyone is navigating new political territory in the Statehouse with a record number of freshmen legislators.
Until there’s a clear answer and timeline, Lantz said Idaho Housing and Finance will stop taking applications after Dec. 29. All applications received before that date will still be processed.
“We hope that additional funding will be approved early in the legislative session. Our mission since the beginning has been to lessen the burden on families that are facing homelessness or any other housing challenges, and that becomes more acute in the winter months,” Lantz said.
Boise/Ada housing authority receives about 1,200 applications per month for assistance
The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority, on the other hand, is not pausing its program and estimates it will be able to keep distributing emergency rental assistance funds for the first six months of 2023, said Programs Director Jillian Patterson.
The housing authority has operated independently of Idaho Housing and Finance when it comes to the rental assistance funding because as a state and local organization, it has received separate direct awards from the government that do not need legislative approval.
Over the past two years, the housing authority has provided rental assistance to approximately 10,000 households, or 21,000 people, with a combined total of $47 million in funds. That includes some of the reallocated funds that the housing authority received when the Idaho Housing and Finance Association had to give the funds back to the U.S. Treasury.
The housing authority receives about 1,200 applications for assistance per month, which works out to about $2.5 million, and distributed $1 million in assistance just in the first week of December.
Patterson said she recently came across a 92-year-old veteran who applied for rental assistance because after 14 years of living in the same apartment, his rent increased by $450.
“We hear mostly about those who are on fixed incomes and the rent increases that our community is still seeing quite a bit,” Patterson said. “It’s really having an impact on those households.”
Patterson said the housing authority is still spending funds from the first round of Emergency Rental Assistance and will likely shift to the second round in January.
Idaho needs more long-term affordable housing help, director says
Deanna Watson, executive director of the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority, said she is glad the funds can continue for a while, but she worries about the long term when the money dries up. The housing authority continues to try to persuade state officials, including legislators, to create more stable sources of funding for affordable housing, such as real estate transfer fees, local option taxes, and state and local housing trust funds. At the moment, Idaho law does not allow for any of those options to be used, aside from the state housing trust fund, which has been empty since it was established in 1992.
The Idaho Legislature did approve $50 million for a fund that provides gap financing for affordable housing projects, and it is designed to be self-replenishing through revolving loans, but Watson said she isn’t sure it will be enough to address the problem.
“It feels a little like we’ve got a finger in the dike, and at some point, the dam’s going to break,” Watson said.
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Kelcie Moseley-Morris | Idaho Capital Sun
Kelcie Moseley-Morris is an award-winning journalist who has covered many topics across Idaho since 2011. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and a master’s degree in public administration from Boise State University. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun, Moseley-Morris started her journalism career at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, followed by the Lewiston Tribune and the Idaho Press.