BJ Stensland and Aid for Friends building

BJ Stensland, executive director of the Aid for Friends homeless shelter, stands in front of what will be the organization's new location at 209 E. Center St. in Pocatello.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series on homelessness in Southeast Idaho. Today’s story focuses on local families who are struggling due to the rising cost of housing. It is a product of the staff at the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello.

POCATELLO — Potty training a toddler is a lost cause amid the commotion of an overcrowded homeless shelter.

“It’s hard to have structure in a place like that,” said Tarissa Taylor, a mother of two young children. “You’ve got everybody telling all of the kids what to do.”

On Dec. 12, Taylor’s family obtained a federal housing voucher, enabling them to move out of the Aid for Friends shelter and into a four-bedroom home, ending a seven-month period of homelessness.

Staff at Aid for Friends say the story of Taylor’s family is representative of a recent trend: A growing number of young families have been checking into the shelter as wages in the community haven’t kept pace with rapidly rising housing costs.

“Last week, we had 63 people in the shelter, and there were 22 children on the family floor,” said BJ Stensland, Aid for Friends’ executive director. “The family floor used to be a quarter of our population. Now it’s almost 70 percent.”

As Taylor knows from experience, many middle class families in Southeast Idaho may be a single bad break away from losing their housing. Taylor’s fiance Beau Jones, once had a good job with benefits as safety coordinator for the J.R. Simplot fry plant in Aberdeen. About four and a half years ago he injured his shoulder on the job lifting a heavy roll of plastic. Before he could return to work, the company closed the plant to build a new factory in Caldwell. They lost the home they’d been renting four months after Jones was laid off. They spent a year living with Taylor’s brother in Idaho Falls, where Jones worked at Grease Monkey. Jones has held short-term jobs as a handyman and working referrals from temp agencies.

They spent five months sharing a two-bedroom trailer in Pocatello with Taylor’s mother. Then they moved into a small apartment with Taylor’s grandmother until the elderly woman had to check into a nursing home. On June 19, 2018, the family moved into the overcrowded Aid for Friends shelter. On a couple of occasions, they reached the maximum allowable stay of 90 days and had to spend a couple of weeks back in the cramped trailer home with Taylor’s mother.

The family was diligent in saving money for a deposit, so when their housing voucher came through after a seven-month wait, they were prepared to make their move. And they lucked out by quickly finding an affordable home. Their voucher payment is based on housing needs for their family size and covers $700 of their $725 monthly rent. Priority is given to applicants who are disabled, actively homeless or have families with children.

Taylor met people who stayed at the shelter even after getting approved for a voucher because they couldn’t find or qualify for affordable housing.

“Not very many people are as successful as we were,” she said. “We really lucked out.”

Working harder, falling further behind

On a recent afternoon, Stensland tallied 48 people from 30 households who were staying at the Aid for Friends shelter. She said 20 of those households were supported by either a part-time or a full-time income.

The root of the problem for Idaho families, in Stensland’s opinion, is the community’s historically tight housing supply, especially when it comes to affordable housing options.

“Landlords are now able to screen more people out if they have anything wrong with their tenant history, criminal background or credit,” Stensland said.

Sunny Shaw, executive director with the Housing Authority of the city of Pocatello, administers 589 housing vouchers in the community funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The average payment for a voucher is $447, compared with $398 three years ago. There’s a three- to four-year wait for vouchers, with about 490 applicants in line.

Housing program forced to evolve

NeighborWorks Pocatello has built 175 affordable homes in the community throughout the years.

“Now we’re getting offers nearly at the time we break ground,” said Executive Director Mark Dahlquist.

NeighborWorks gets a HUD subsidy to make each home it builds more affordable to people who earn below 80 percent of the area median income. Homes have been selling in the range of $140,000, counting the subsidy. The program uses a “soft mortgage” to drive the initial amount a buyer must finance down to about $110,000. The strategy entails deferring repayment of part of the loan without interest until the home is sold or the initial loan is paid in full.

NeighborWorks has been looking to build homes in clusters to capitalize on the economies of scale. Still, Dahlquist said the usual tricks haven’t been enough to bridge the gap for low-income buyers, and his program may change its model. Contractors are charging more, and land and material costs are also climbing.

“We might have to get out of the single-family home market,” Dahlquist said. “The numbers are not working.”

Dahlquist anticipates NeighborWorks will shift to building affordable multi-family rental complexes to stretch its dollars and serve more families.

The silver lining

Despite all of the challenges they face, local affordable housing officials can also point to some encouraging developments.

Shaw said HACP has hired Gate City Builders to construct a 24-unit complex with three-bedroom apartments. She said the apartments won’t be subsidized, but they will be affordably priced at $900 per month.

Within the next three months, officials with Southeastern Idaho Community Action Agency plan to expand their home ownership program in Chubbuck, which builds affordable single-family homes.