On June 9 Gov. Little approved $5 million in emergency rental assistance to prevent pandemic-related income loss from forcing Idahoans out of their homes. As an organization focused on eviction and homelessness prevention, Jesse Tree of Idaho applauds this decision and supports two additional planned $5 million infusions to the fund. More will need to be done to ensure no one loses their home due to the coronavirus, and it’s critical that lawmakers continue to make policy choices that protect our health and economy.

Natalie Sandoval

Natalie Sandoval

To supplement state action, federal lawmakers have the opportunity to include key resources in the next pandemic relief package to ensure Idahoans can stay in their homes. These policy choices include comprehensive emergency and longer-term rental assistance, robust resources for services to people experiencing homelessness, and a ban on evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, Idaho’s stagnant wages were not keeping up with rapidly increasing rental prices — leaving many renters with no choice but to dedicate most of their family budget to rent. Only 44 rental homes are affordable and available for every 100 of Idaho’s most modest-earning renters. Working at Idaho’s minimum wage of $7.25, Idahoans must work 67 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment and 85 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.

Stagnant wages combined with high rents mean many Idaho renters are one unexpected expense away from falling behind on rent. Rent eats up more than a third of the family budget for 89% of the lowest-income families, with most actually paying more than half. A broken-down car or missed days with a sick child puts people at risk of losing their home.

Leaders in health, education, hunger, faith, civil rights and others are joining housing advocates to call for adequate funding to ensure rental assistance is available to every Idahoan facing housing instability. We understand stable housing is the foundation for good health for families, academic excellence for students and other positive outcomes for our communities.

At a time when our collective health depends on people’s ability to stay home, it has never been clearer that housing is health care. Without adequate emergency rental assistance, more families will become homeless or be forced to double- or triple-up with others.

It’s not just homelessness that affects an individual’s mental and physical health. The stress of poverty can impair the building of strong neural pathways associated with foundational academic skills, hampering overall brain development. Stress also puts children at risk for higher rates of disease — such as asthma, allergies and chronic infections — which may be untreated due to lack of access to affordable health care.

Idaho’s local, state and federal lawmakers must ensure every Idahoan receives the resources and support they need to remain stably housed. This is not just an economic necessity, but a moral and health imperative. We must protect those who are most at risk during this pandemic.

Natalie Sandoval is the Homeless Education Liaison with the Nampa School District and serves on the Jesse Tree of Idaho Board of Directors.