rent vote 2-19-21

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The Idaho House has voted 59-8 in favor of the first big piece of nearly $900 million in federal COVID-19 aid funding that Congress authorized in December; it would provide $175 million for rental and utility assistance to needy Idaho renters impacted by the pandemic. The bill, HB 176, still needs to pass the Senate and receive the governor’s signature to become law.

“Why do we need this funding?” asked Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s sponsor. “There are a pretty significant number of individuals in the state of Idaho that we estimate that have fallen behind on their ability to pay their rent and their utility payments. Approximately 10% of adult renters have fallen behind. We estimate that 34,000 Idaho households are at risk of eviction. Idaho renters are currently behind on between $73 million and $103 million on rental payments, and Idaho utility providers have seen a 20% increase in past-due bills since the start of the pandemic.”

Amador noted that the bill, as written by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, would hand the money over to the Idaho Housing & Finance Association, which will administer the program, only in $10 million increments as it’s needed. To be eligible, renters must be below 80% of the area median income; have proof of a COVID-related hardship such as loss of income; and housing cost must be 25% or more of the individual’s income.

“I will point out if Idaho chooses to forgo all or a portion of the … funding, it will be reallocated to other states. It will not go back to the federal government,” Amador told the House. “I think this is an opportunity to help some of our Idaho friends and neighbors that have been significantly impacted. I think all of us probably know somebody that’s been impacted by the pandemic in one way or the other. I think the data’s pretty clear that we do have Idahoans struggling to pay their rent, pay their utilities. Unfortunately, this pandemic has particularly hit our lower-income citizens harder than other groups, and they are facing a difficult path forward. I think this provides them some stability to move fowrard. ... I think this is a good thing for Idaho.”

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, asked several questions of Amador, then said he was struggling with the bill, though he ended up voting in favor of it. “The state’s part of this process now where we’re going to be giving hundreds of millions of dollars to fix what the government broke in the first place,” he said. If this continues, he said, “There’ll be no reason for landlords to raise their rent because money will be free. There’ll be no reason for renters to work. … This is a quandary. I get it. I’m struggling with this. I don’t know that I want to continue to vote for socialism, and yet these people are hurting.”

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, noted that counties or cities with more than 200,000 population were allowed to access the federal funds already, rather than go through the state, and Boise and Ada County already have. “So to be clear, the city of Boise has already received these funds. Ada County has already received these funds.” But people in her district can’t yet access them, she said. “It’s already happening in the state; we didn’t have to approve it. This is just for the rest of the state.”

Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Riggins, said, “I’m not generally in favor of making a huge debt for our grandkids in the future, but in my way of reasoning this out, is if my grandkids are going to have to pay this bill no matter what, I would just as soon they were paying for money spent in Idaho by Idahoans, and not by Californians. So that’s just my opinion.”

The eight “no” votes came from Reps. Chad Christensen, R-Iona; Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird; Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony; Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley; Ron Nate, R-Rexburg; Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; Heather Scott, R-Blanchard; and Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls.

In his closing debate, Amador said, “We don’t want to see our federal deficit grow, and we’re concerned about our future with our children and grandchildren and the pressure that it puts on them to bear this burden down the road. But I also know that Idahoans are suffering, and whether you want to claim that it was the exclusive fault of the government in preventing people from working, or if you feel like there are direct impacts from COVID to people in their ability to earn dollars … I certainly know there were people in Idaho that have perished from COVID-19 that were breadwinners for their families. … And all of a sudden, those people (in their families) are struggling because COVID has directly impacted their life.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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