Experts agree: Idaho was in a housing crisis before COVID-19, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Home is where people take respite from the uncontrollable world. In a pandemic, the home takes on even more significance; but as the pandemic rages on, having a space of one's own has become increasingly difficult to afford for many Idahoans.
“People are having a hard time,” said Ali Rabe, executive director at Jesse Tree. “For some reason. they can’t get full or partial unemployment and we’re hearing from people that we’ve never heard from before asking for help for the first time in their lives.”
Tenants struggle to pay rent while many have lost income and face evictions. Nonprofits like Jesse Tree, Legal Aid Services and Interfaith Sanctuary have felt the heat as they struggle to keep pace. Advocates say they are concerned with what the future will hold as the pandemic begins to push people further into debt and more people out of their homes.
“We’re hearing from a lot of tenants and our call volume is three times higher since COVID,” said Rabe. “We are not able to help all of them. People were living paycheck to paycheck before this.”
The average cost of a one bedroom rental in Boise fluctuates, but numbers floated by rentcafe.com, payscale.com and weknowboise.com show that rent for a one bedroom runs from $800 to over $1,000. According to the Living Wage Calculator created by MIT, an adult with no children would need to make $11.16 an hour to support themselves, but Idaho’s minimum wage is set at $7.25 an hour. Someone working full time in Idaho, receiving minimum wage makes roughly $1,160 a month. Even if a renter pays $800 a month, they’re spending well over half of their income on rent, leaving little left for other necessities like food, utilities and medical expenses.
That math predates the pandemic and scales nationwide, with a significant number of Americans affected. A 2020 Harvard study found the number of cost-burdened renter households is at a record high.
"If the tightness in rental markets persists, the number of cost-burdened renters will likely remain in the tens of millions,” the study's authors wrote.
According to the Eviction Lab, most renting families spend half or more of their income on housing costs, and only one in four families qualifies for affordable housing programs. If people do get evicted, they deal with much more than just losing their home, with children often have to change schools, people losing their possessions and legal evictions showing up on people's credit records, keeping them from securing new housing.
“An eviction stays on your record in Idaho,” said Associate Director of Idaho Legal Aid Services Howard Belodoff. “In a lot of other states they can remove them but in Idaho, at least to my knowledge, there’s no way to get it off.”
Belodoff added that people fall behind financially very quickly, and often even if they apply for and receive aid to help with their eviction, the money usually doesn’t come fast enough and people still get evicted.
“What’s awful is that, especially now, you could end up with a lot of families in Idaho with nowhere left to go during a pandemic, and that creates all sorts of new problems,” he said.
Recently, in the case of Idaho Legal Aid Services v. State of Idaho, a judge ruled that people in Idaho have a right to a jury trial in matters of eviction. Prior to this ruling, the state had not allowed tenants a jury trial since 1996. Ritchie Eppink, the legal director at ACLU Idaho, said a trial gives tenants more power over their situation, and is their constitutional right.
Being able to request a jury trial is helpful to give tenants more rights because traditionally, landlords have representation in legal matters, whereas many tenants have not had similar representation. All jury trials are temporarily suspended, though a federal pause on eviction proceedings is set to lapse July 31.
“What’s really important is that people get in touch with legal aid so they can ask for a jury trial,” said Eppink. “We are also waiting to see if the federal moratorium on [eviction proceedings] will be extended. If it does expire, we’re going to see an even more monumental eviction crisis.”
Currently, even with the addition of jury trials, Idaho evictions happen quite swiftly. Belodoff said that people can be evicted in as short a time as three days to two weeks. He also said that the pandemic strains Legal Aid Services. The organization aided 393 families in 2018 and 464 families in 2019, but by July of this year, Legal Aid had worked with over 319 families, and with the courts closed, members of the organization fear there will be a huge surge of need when they reopen.
“So it’s tsunami time,” said Belodoff. “It’s going to clog the courts, I think. Hopefully landlords will be willing to work with tenants because we don’t need anymore people living in shelters or on the streets here in Boise.”
If people get evicted, many of them end up in those circumstances. Rabe said the main goal at Jesse Tree is to keep people in their housing, and the organization is one of the last hopes for people before they end up on the street. One of the biggest challenges to Jesse Tree is letting people know to contact them prior to receiving an eviction notice.
“These people will end up in shelters, so many folks who are low-wage earners are being displaced,” said Rabe. “The problem is that once you’re evicted and homeless it’s so hard to get people back on track, evictions ruin lives longer than that eviction.”
The Executive Director at Interfaith Sanctuary Jodi Stigers said she doesn’t know what’s going to happen in two months. The shelter has been putting families up in hotels around the city, and many of the guests at the shelter are there because of an eviction. She said they’ve seen new families that are homeless because the pandemic.
“We need to keep people in their homes if possible because right now, we are at capacity,” said Stigers. “We’re seeing a lot of families with children that have lost their homes for the first time. Some are scared of shelters and were living in their cars before they couldn’t take it anymore. As a community we need to do something before it’s too late.”