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Idaho emergency rental assistance program starts winding down

A white sign says "For Rent" in front of a blurred tree and apartment building in the background.
Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons

States, including Idaho, are beginning to wind down a rental assistance program that the U.S. Treasury Department set up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP, aimed to prevent evictions by helping people who were struggling economically with rent and utility payments.

“When the eviction moratorium subsided, it was there to really help become a safety net,” said Zoe Ann Olson, the executive director of the Intermountain Fair Housing Council.

Olson said most people in need of rental assistance in Idaho have been people with disabilities, veterans and seniors. She said the program has been helpful, covering things like security deposits, first month’s rent, back rent, hotel vouchers and late fees.

This year, the Idaho legislature authorized the Idaho Housing and Finance Association (IHFA) to distribute $38 million in federal funds as part of the second iteration of the rental assistance program.

The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities separately distribute emergency rental assistance for Ada County residents.

IHFA told BoiseDev its money would likely last through next June, the end of the fiscal year.

But it’s running out of the pool faster than expected, and is cutting back on some assistance to make the money stretch for as long as possible.

In July, at the start of the second round of the program, IHFA saw a big spike in demand, said Jason Lantz, the marketing and communications director. The organization went from distributing an average of $3 million a month to $6 million.

Lantz attributes the increase to the U.S. Treasury’s broadening of requirements to be eligible for the assistance and the increased timeline people could qualify for – from 15 months to 18 months.

It’s also a change of pace from the first allocation. When a large chunk of IHFA’s portion wasn’t distributed to renters outside of Ada County by the deadline, the federal government reappropriated $22 million to other states, according to reporting by the Idaho Statesman.

This time, IHFA partnered with community organizations like the Intermountain Fair Housing Council and Jesse Tree to help more people apply for the funds.

The success of the distribution and the increased demand now mean IHFA is cutting back on some assistance. At the end of January, it’ll stop paying for rent and utilities in advance, before they’re due. And as of October, with a week’s notice, it told its partners it’s not covering new hotel or motel stays.

That caught Mary Fauth by surprise. She’s the director of the Blaine County Charitable Fund, one of the organizations helping people apply for emergency rental assistance with IHFA.

Fauth said the hotel and motel stays, covered for up to 60 days, helped people in the Wood River Valley, where finding a rental is tough and where there’s no emergency shelter.

“When people don't have a rental in place to activate the assistance, the hotel/motel assistance was a great gap to fill because if they were immediately losing their housing, then they had at least somewhere to go,” she said.

The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authorities decided not to approve hotel and motel stays as part of its program from the start. But Olson said the Intermountain Fair Housing Council found they were useful elsewhere in the state.

“In a lot of counties, the only housing that our community members have been able to find or secure was hotels,” she said.

Lantz said the changes come as about $22 million of the $38 million intended to last through next June has been used.

“The intent of those steps was to help the most eligible Idaho renters for as long as possible with this current funding source,” Lantz said.

IHFA also wants to make sure there’s still money available for people who are supposed to be getting multiple months of assistance.

More than $80 million in rental assistance has been given out outside of Ada County since 2020, Lantz said, helping about 21,000 people.

“That’s something we’re proud of,” he said.

Olson said the fact that the money in the program is running out shows the need that exists in Idaho.

“A bulk of our calls, you know, 20 a day or more, are someone needing rental assistance all across the state,” she said. “There's just so much need. It's overwhelming.”

IHFA would like the program to continue, and Lantz said it can if the legislature approves a $15.5 supplemental appropriation this upcoming session.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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