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While Idaho Legislature mulls $1.9 billion surplus, more families face skyrocketing rents and evictions

Photo collage showing a "for rent" sign, a "final notice" sign and a piece of paper with red letters that say "eviction notice."
Creative Commons 2.0, 3.0, Shutterstock

If there was ever a stereotype of someone who was teetering on the possibility of eviction, or worse, that trope evaporated decades ago. In fact, millions of Americans are closer to being without a home – do the economy, the pandemic, bankruptcy or any combination thereof – than any time in recent history. And that possibility has become reality for a growing number of Idahoans.

“We know that last year, there was almost 900 eviction hearings, just in the Treasure Valley alone,” said Ali Rabe, executive director of Jesse Tree. “And 2,500 people became homeless.”

While the 2022 Idaho Legislature debates how to best spend a reported $1.9 billion state surplus, Rabe argues that the need has never been greater to assist those on the edge of being without a roof over their head.

“Most of those people ended up in that situation simply because they couldn’t pay for basic essential expenses, like their housing,” said Rabe.

Along with a woman, identified only as Debbie (due to her tenuous relationship with her current landlord), Rabe visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about an alternative “State of the State.”

“I have an almost perfect score. That being said, I would not have the money to rent another place.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. Gov. Brad Little began the New Year by touting what he called Idaho's robust economy, and we're told that there is something like a $1.9 billion state surplus, as lawmakers talk about all the things they'd like to do with that money. Meanwhile, a growing number of Idahoans struggled to secure a livable wage under the shadow of inflation, which has rapidly increased everything from a gallon of milk to a gallon of gas. And then there is affordable housing or the lack thereof. Ali Rabe is here. She's executive director at Jesse Tree, where she and her colleagues spend their days doing their best to keep people from becoming homeless. Ali, good morning.

ALI RABE: Good morning, George. Thanks for having me.

PRENTICE: My sense is that these are more than just two very different narratives. It's increasingly feeling like and looking like we have two very different Idahos.

RABE: Yes, I was born and raised in Idaho, and I've seen the rising cost of living in Idaho affect so many of our vulnerable neighbors, native Idahoans who can no longer afford to live here anymore. We know that last year there were almost nine hundred eviction hearings just in the Treasure Valley alone, and 2,500 people became homeless. And most of those people ended up in that situation simply because they couldn't pay for basic, essential expenses like their housing.

PRENTICE: I want to bring another voice into our conversation, Ali, could you introduce us?

RABE: Yes. I want to introduce you today to Debbie, a tenant living in the Treasure Valley that Jesse Tree was able to assist last year.

PRENTICE: Debbie, good morning.

DEBBIE: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

PRENTICE: Absolutely, Debbie. If you don't mind sharing a bit…What can you tell us about your story?

DEBBIE: My husband passed away in March of 2020 and we were doing just fine financially up until that point. When he passed away, my income was cut in half immediately. I was able to maintain on my own for the first six to nine months. And at that point, my son moved in to try to help me out. And then, two weeks after he moved in, he lost. He got laid off due to COVID. I worked with Boise City, any kind of housing, I got some help with them to pay my rent for a few months and help me out. And then it got to where the end of my lease came up. He increased my rent from twelve hundred a month to fifteen fifty a month. My single income was not enough to even make the rent. We were like one hundred and thirty-five dollars over the income for them to assist us at this point. And Jesse was able to assist me with three months of rent, some of my utilities and that got me through the holidays. And I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do.

PRENTICE: My goodness. Ali, is Debbie's story a familiar one?

RABE: Yes, it is. And yeah, thank you, Debbie. It's not easy to tell your story and let alone share it with others and just really appreciate you being brave enough to do that. We hear from a lot of people about our tentative to even apply for rental assistance because they're ashamed and embarrassed to ask for help. And I hope that people can hear your story and know that this really could happen to anyone right now. And yes, George, we are hearing from hundreds of people in the Treasure Valley every single month with similar stories that you know, life keeps happening for people despite the housing crisis and by the pandemic. We hear from a lot of people that have had a recent divorce, job loss or the case of Debbie, she lost her husband. Things like that that caused people to either lose their income or that increase their expenses. Many things may happen to them all at once, and it can be a snowball effect, leading them to this place where they can't pay for basic expenses. So, yes, it's a common problem. And then on top of that, many tenants are experiencing extreme rent increases. So Debbie had $350 a month rent increase, which would be difficult for anyone to cover. We've seen people in eviction court who have experienced a five hundred dollars a month rent increase or six hundred rent increase. It's very common and a really challenging time for people who are living just right on the line already.

PRENTICE: Debbie, I think that more than a few people would think that you have been a part of what we like to call the middle class. Do you look at yourself that way? Do you look at yourself as being in the middle class?

DEBBIE: Yes. You know, I graduated from Boise State with a degree and a license to practice law, and I worked for adult protective services when I graduated. Then from there, I went to the state and surveyed health care facilities, assisted living, specifically when my husband got ill and he got to a point where he could not be left alone. He needed help. So I basically retired. At that point, I quit and it was only going to be a temporary thing. Then I got sick. We were able to survive. So yes, we were middle class. It changed really quick. We were initially paying dollars a month and nine months into our lease. The landlord came and said, Hey, would you guys mind extending your lease with me? The really good tenants, I don't want to lose you. And so we did. You lost the rent in at twelve hundred, but that lease was up in August like I said, and he increased the rent. Like I said, three hundred fifty dollars more a month. Initially, he was going to increase it to 18, 50 a month. And I explained to him, You know, you know, I can't do that. That's impossible. He said, Well, I can go a little bit below market and I know for a fact there's a house on the same street around the corner from me that's going to be twenty-one hundred dollars a month. So it seems strange to say, Hey, I feel lucky that I'm only having to pay 15 50,

PRENTICE: And it's because of these very delicate, very personal conversations why we're just using Debbie's first name. That said, Debbie, I mean, some of these conversations are really uncomfortable with the landlord, right? Yes. Things have become for lack of a better word, prickly because people are looking at how much money they can make.

DEBBIE: Exactly. And you have to be careful. You know you don't want to be evicted because…there's nowhere else to go. If you know, I had a great, great credit score, almost…almost perfect credit score. That being said, I would not have the money to rent another place.

PRENTICE: Ali Rabe, this $1.9 billion surplus that we're told about with the state and yet Idaho State Housing Trust Fund doesn't have a penny in it. How come?

RABE: I think it's been really difficult to get our state government to invest in increasing our affordable housing stock over the last several years just because of the political climate. We're in and kind of shying away from creating any new government programs, even though this is exactly the type of situation we're in where I believe government should step up. Thankfully, though, in the governor's budget this year they did propose $50 million for workforce housing. It doesn't look like, at least right now, we don't know if that will be put into the trust fund. And we hope that it will, but thankfully that that funding will be available to create affordable housing. It's it's very expensive and difficult just because land is now so expensive all over Idaho, and to create units that are affordable for Idaho's working families will require the government to step in and help.

PRENTICE: She is Ali Rabe with Jessie Tree here in Boise. And Debbie, truly, best of luck to you. I am so grateful for your courage and openness to share your story. And I am certain that I am not alone in wishing nothing but good things for you.

RABE: Thank you very much, Joyce, and thank you for having me and allowing me to tell my story because it's important, very important to get the message out there that folks are not alone. Everyone is. A lot of folks are suffering this, these circumstances. I do. I agree with Ali, the state. The government has got to step in and come up with some long-term solution to this.

PRENTICE: Ali, thank you so much.

RABE: Thank you, George, and thank you, Debbie, for sharing your story with everyone.

DEBBIE: Absolutely. Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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