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CALDWELL — Vanessa Quintero, 30, didn’t anticipate being on the waitlist for affordable housing so long.

Left without any options due to a shortage of affordable housing units in Caldwell, the wife and mother of five young children was pushed to look at other possibilities, like moving to a new state.

“With rent and bills and everything on top of it, there’s no way … to be able to sustain raising a family and function without eating Ramen every day,” Quintero said.

Though it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Idaho — her home of about 13 years — it became necessary after waiting nearly five months to find an affordable place through the Caldwell Housing Authority. So, Quintero moved in with her in-laws in Oregon.

Quintero is one of hundreds of people across the Treasure Valley in search of affordable housing. As home and rent prices skyrocket, housing has become less attainable for many people.

“These are everyday working folks with families who more and more can’t afford a place to live in,” said Josh Scholer, a policy specialist at Jannus in Boise.

Families who pay more than 30% of their adjusted gross income for housing are considered cost-burdened and may have a hard time affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Affordable housing is any housing project that was in some way subsidized by the federal government, with rent capped to meet the 30% rent-burdened standard, according to Mike Dittenber, executive director of the Caldwell Housing Authority. That means if someone who makes $1,000 per month has a rent payment of $800 a month, they'd receive $300 in subsidies. 

Cost-burdened families in Canyon County have resources to turn to when looking for subsidized housing, including the Caldwell and Nampa Housing Authorities, the Southwestern Idaho Cooperative Housing Authority and developers such as New Beginnings Housing LLC, which has built several housing complexes across the state low- and moderate-income households.

There are also programs aimed to make Idaho housing more affordable, including the Project-Based Section 8 program, the Low-income Housing Tax Credit and the Home Investments Partnerships Program. The programs, some of which are offered through IHFA and other entities, all contribute to making housing affordable at the 30% rate.

Even with such resources, affordable housing may not be an easy thing to come by, with most units in both Ada and Canyon counties at capacity and waiting lists months and even years long.

“Everybody is feeling the pressure of these very, very tight rental markets, escalating home prices,” said Gerald Hunter, president and executive director of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. “It’s really creating a big concern about having affordable housing.”

While these programs help bring affordable housing units to the area, they’re not providing enough support to meet the demand, according to Greg Urrutia, owner of New Beginnings Housing.

“The resources to address the shortage of affordable housing are limited,” Urrutia said. “There will never be enough resources to really take care of everyone.”

THE PROBLEM

The valley’s affordable housing crisis has been exacerbated by rising house prices, leading people to sell the available housing stock that would have otherwise been rented and causing people to turn to renting who have been priced out of buying a home.

In Canyon County, the median assessed value sits around $205,000 — an almost 15% increase since last year, according to the county assessor's office.

Ada County is seeing similar trends. In the last year, the median assessed value went up about 18%, to around $296,700. 

Home prices aren’t expected to slow down. Zillow predicts home values in Canyon and Ada counties will rise from anywhere between 8% and 12% in the next year.

Idaho’s fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $804, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. To be able to afford this without being considered rent-burdened, a person must make more than $32,000 annually, which translates to a 40-hour work week making $15.47 an hour — well above the state’s minimum wage of $7.25.

Someone making $14 an hour makes $29,120 annually, or $2,427 per month. Thirty percent of that income is $728 per month, a rent that's becoming increasingly hard to find in the Treasure Valley. According to the latest figures from rentcafe.com, the average rent in Boise is $1,133.

As home-ownership levels decrease and the cost of entry-level housing increases, finding an available unit has become less realistic, according to Urrutia. 

“The stress on that rental housing stock — which is already inadequate — is just continuing to grow,” Urrutia said. “There just aren’t options to come in and try to address the overall housing need that’s out there right now.”

Because of the number of projects that have been allocated funding in Caldwell and Nampa, Urrutia said that Canyon County is at a disadvantage for picking up funds from IHFA, given their competitive plans.

“They’re trying to allocate resources to other parts of the state,” Urrutia said.

Another issue stems from developers who build affordable housing only for targeted populations. Whether it’s for seniors ages 55 and older or housing for a specific workforce, it’s cutting out a population in need, including Quintero and her family.

The housing industry, Dittenber said, is turning its back on millennials. At the housing authority, almost 60% of housing applicants are between the ages of 18 and 35.

“Where’s the disconnect at, let’s say, the state level that recognizes the housing gap for the age group?” Dittenber asked. “In the affordable housing being developed, there’s just none for your starter family.”

The number of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits available is capped every year based on what the federal government is able to provide. For fiscal year 2019, Idaho allocated around $4.3 million in credits. Hunter said the agency last fall received 20 applications from developers from virtually every part of the state and could fund only eight.

Trying to deal with the demand and help people answer questions about how they might approach the creation of housing that’s affordable is a big challenge, Hunter said.

“I think the most significant issue is the demand for the resources,” Hunter said. “It’s pressing every part of the state today.”

INVENTORY AND NEED

In Caldwell, there’s a huge shortage of affordable housing — the area needs to build more than 1,200 units of affordable and close-to-market units to address that shortage, Dittenber said. Over the next three years, Urrutia anticipates that only about 230 affordable housing units will be built through tax-credit programs. 

Currently, there’s a total of around 600 affordable housing units in Caldwell, which are a combination of tax-payer projects and subsidized projects among various agencies in the area. That compares to Boise, which has roughly 3,000 affordable housing units, according to an early 2019 Idaho Press analysis

There are no vacancies for those seeking affordable housing through Caldwell's housing authority, which provides rental housing to low-income, farm labor families and non-farm families. They currently have 225 units of housing — about 60% of which are set aside for low-income families, and the rest for farm laborers.

In 2018, there were more than 400 families on the waiting list for subsidized housing through the housing authority, compared to a little over 300 in 2015.

Most residents on the waiting list won’t secure a spot for at least a year, though their time on the list is largely dependent on how many rooms they’re looking for. This is why Dittenber recommends getting on multiple wait lists across the valley.

“The more waiting lists you’re on, the greater your likelihood of getting housing is,” Dittenber said.

Even then, application fees, which vary depending on the organization, can be a major deterrent for people looking to get on a waitlist by putting an additional financial strain on families.

“It’s like 80 bucks or 100 bucks, but if I only have 50 bucks left then I can’t apply this month, so I’ve gotta wait until next month and then it’s gone,” Quintero said. “It’s a vicious cycle." 

Though an application fee may not seem like much — some range from $10 to $50 — it could determine whether Quintero's family has the the means necessary to live. 

Over the last 18 months, of the 366 applications the housing authority's received, they were only able to provide housing to 15% of those who applied. 

Once a unit becomes available, it's critical that the person is immediately prepared to pay what's needed to secure the housing. 

"When we call you, you best be ready to rent," Dittenber said. "It's a fragile market and if you blink or hesitate, you could miss your opportunity for rental housing." 

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS

Efforts to bring more affordable housing units to Canyon County are underway. More recently, developer Mercy Creek Associates opened low-income senior apartments in Nampa, in the space where the former Mercy Hospital once was.

In Caldwell, New Beginnings is currently working on two projects that could bring a total of 80 affordable housing units to the city — one near the Sky Ranch Business Park and another at a property adjacent to Advocates Against Family Violence. 

To better address a need for resources to help build affordable housing units, both Urrutia and Dittenber said the state should utilize its housing trust fund, which was created in 1992 to support housing initiatives targeted toward those with lower income levels. Since its creation, the fund hasn't been financed. 

The state's current programs, like tax credits through IHFA, can only go so far; there are still funding gaps, Urrutia said. 

Supporting the housing trust fund could help fill the gap by making projects more viable or allowing developers to offer lower rents.

“That’s something the state could do,” Urrutia said. “It wouldn’t be huge, but every little bit helps.”

Addressing Idaho’s minimum wage is another way Dittenber thinks the state can combat the affordable housing shortage. 

Idaho’s average weekly wage was lower than all but two other states in 2018, the Idaho Press reported. A citizens group is working on signature drive to raise Idaho's minimum wage by ballot initiative.

Though Quintero's husband had a stable, full-time job in Idaho, the majority of his income went straight to the family's living expenses.

"At the end of the month we're left with about 50 bucks," Quintero said. "Everything’s raising up, except wages. Because the wages aren’t going anywhere, then nobody can afford to live. The balance between the pay and the housing, it’s just not there.”

Even with a lack of available units in Caldwell, and a strain on resources statewide, Quintero hopes one day she's able to come back to Idaho to continue raising her family. 

"Ultimately, we do like Idaho — it's less expensive than Oregon," Quintero said. "There's just a lot more options out here than there is in Idaho, but if we can get back to Idaho, we would." 

Savannah Cardon is the Caldwell reporter for the Idaho Press. Follow her on Twitter, @savannahlcardon, or reach her at 208-465-8172.

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