Of the $175 million in emergency rental assistance funds available to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, a little over 5% — or $9 million — has been distributed to Idahoans outside of Ada County so far.
The program is meant to help individuals who need help with rent or utilities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s retroactive or future rent and utilities. An applicants’ income must not exceed 80% of the area median income, and they must provide a statement from a landlord indicating past rent or a bill from a utility company. The assistance lasts a maximum of 15 months, and payments are sent directly to landlords or utility companies to keep accounts current. As of March, the program had assisted more than 6,600 households.
Brady Ellis, vice president of Housing Support Programs at Idaho Housing and Finance, said the organization is receiving about 50 applications per day and approving around 65% of them within five days. Some are denied because the applicant earns more than 80% of the area median income, while others are missing required documentation.
Others may be denied because they describe hardships that are not COVID related, or because the person owns the home, and the program is only for renters.
Nationally, organizations have said they are frustrated by an inability to grant funds because of various barriers, including rejections over appropriate documentation.
Applicants are required to describe how they have been adversely affected by COVID, but no documentation other than a written narrative is required. Ellis said the federal guidance for the funding is to make access to the funds a low barrier because it is an emergency program.
“We review (the narrative), make sure it sounds reasonable, and then move on,” Ellis said. “It’s not that you have to prove you had COVID or you’re out of work or anything like that.”
Local rental assistance higher than statewide
Unlike the first round of rental assistance funding that came from the CARES Act funding in 2020, local jurisdictions were permitted to apply for their own allocation. The Boise City and Ada County Housing Authority applied for its own funds and received $21.8 million, of which more than $8.4 million has been spent, or about 38%.
Boise City and Ada County Housing Authority:
Amount of assistance paid as of 7/19: $8,410,745.00
Total households: 1,716
Total Served: 1,194
Total Served: 522
Jillian Patterson, housing programs director for the housing authority, said the acceptance rate for applications coming into the organization is about 90%.
“Really the reasons we’re denying applications is if they’re over income or if they are the actual homeowner and not a renter,” Patterson said. “There have been a handful that haven’t been COVID related. For any household we deny, we’ve been trying to link them to other resources in the community.”
Despite the lower rate of fund disbursement for the Idaho Housing and Finance allocation, Ellis said he is comfortable with that for now because it is meeting the demand coming in. The funding is valid through September 2022, so he expects more to be issued between now and then, especially as more people learn about the program and after the federal moratorium on evictions expires on July 31.
“We feel like what we’ve done on the marketing side has resulted in great interest,” Ellis said.
Funds could be used for other programs but threshold is high
The federal guidance for the funds stipulates that if a certain percentage of the dollars are spent before the deadline, the remainder can be used for other purposes related to housing, such as affordable housing developments. But for that to happen, 65% of the $175 million will need to be spent, and the Idaho Legislature would have to approve the funds for other uses. If the spending threshold isn’t met, the funds will be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Ellis said the program has been running for more than a year now, so he hopes there is widespread knowledge that it exists, but there may be people in corners of the state who are unaware.
“We have a couple regions throughout the state with a lower population than others, so it’s understandable they would have a lower disbursement rate of funds, but the north central part of the state like Lewiston, and south central like Twin Falls and … Pocatello area we have lower rates of disbursement there. So we encourage anyone in those areas to spread the word further through whatever channels they have.”
Locally, some have criticized the program because it is based in an online portal, which can create barriers for those who do not have access to technology or are unable to use a web portal for other reasons. Ellis and Patterson said anyone who wants to apply can call and have a representative fill out the application for them over the phone and assist with submitting documentation.
“We’re flexible as far as what we’re able to do and practice,” Patterson said. “We work with local agencies in the community to identify if they have clients that need help.”
Originally published July 20 on IdahoCapitalSun.com.