Benito Lopez thought he evaded losing his house for the second time, but his landlord had other plans.
Lopez, 45, rented a house in a quiet Nampa subdivision for the past several years and expected to be able to stay for many years more. This all changed when COVID-19 hit and it eventually took one of his jobs and the life of his mother, leaving him behind on his rent. Lopez thought he was back on his feet thanks to the help of a nonprofit at the beginning of February, but a few days after his landlord cashed the assistance check he was handed a non-renewal notice and had 30 days to move out.
He is still in the process of packing up his house, searching for a new place to live and awaiting a possible court-ordered eviction for overstaying his welcome.
“It’s sad this world has come to no compassion for anything and it’s such a money-hungry world,” he said. “I understand that’s what most things revolve around, but there are things that happen in people’s lives that people need to show a little compassion for. We were made to love each other and not kick each other when they’re down.”
Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of low-income Idahoans like Benito have gotten a leg up from emergency government rental assistance or help from nonprofits to catch them up on their rent as the cost of living continues to outpace wages. Many of them were able to use the funds to avoid homelessness and get back on track, but because of the lack of available data, it’s impossible to know how many Idahoans like Benito received help and lost their rental anyway.
Ace Property Management, Benito’s landlord, did not return a message left at their main office requesting an interview for this story.
‘The rock of our family’
Lopez says he never had any problems paying his rent before the pandemic hit.
He made a consistent living as the general manager for chain restaurants in the Treasure Valley for a decade, nearly always making an effort to pay his $1,250 monthly rent early. When his mother ended up homeless after a falling out with her husband nearly two years ago, it was a no-brainer for him to make room in his rental and support her after all of her effort over the years to raise him and his sisters.
Times got a little tough in 2020 when he was laid off from his job as the General Manager of Del Taco when sales slowed down. He fell behind on his bills, but he filed an application with the Idaho Housing and Finance Association to get emergency rental assistance and the agency quickly paid Ace Property Management the $2,400 he owed in rent and caught him up on his utilities.
After avoiding eviction, he found a new job and cruised along through most of 2021 with no problem. This changed at the end of August when his mother contracted COVID-19 from a coworker at her job handing out samples at Costco. He thought she would easily pull through due to her health, but she took a turn for the worst. Eventually, she was having trouble breathing and was admitted to the hospital.
But, after a few days, Lopez wasn’t happy with the quality of her care as she continued to decline and pulled her out to nurse her at home. When he was informed by his boss he would only be able to get three days off to care for her, he quit on the spot. She died September 3, leaving Lopez and his family reeling.
“She was the rock of our family and it was a big hit for my sisters and I,” Lopez said, with tears in his eyes.
Thirty days to move along
There was a lot to do after the loss.
Lopez had to help manage his mother’s estate, sort through several storage units full of his mother’s belongings and grieve with his family, plus he was out of a job. He fell behind on his rent again and filed for more help from IHFA in November. This time though, there were several problems with his application due to missing documentation he was never informed of when he called to ask about its status and wires got crossed when he and his landlord used two different emails to file documents.
By mid-January, he had amassed nearly $8,000 in back rent and late fees owed to Ace and his application through IHFA never got approved. Lopez landed a job with Winco in the meantime, but the slightly less than $2,000 per month paycheck wasn’t enough to dig him out of the hole. He turned to eviction prevention nonprofit Jesse Tree for help and they swooped in at the last minute and paid Ace what he owed.
He thought he was in the clear after Jesse Tree made the payment, but on February 2 he got a notice that his lease was up and he had 30 days to move out. He had been on a lease for his first year living in the house, but since then he had been renting from Ace on a month-to-month basis so the agreement could be terminated at any time. The 30-day notice did not provide a reason for the termination.
Lopez has been making some calls to see if he can find a friend to stay with or an affordable rental, but with his swing shift schedule at Winco working more than 45 hours a week it’s been difficult to find the time to locate a new place and move all of his belongings to a storage unit by himself. He’s still not sure where he’s going to live, how he’ll afford it or if he’ll end up in court because he couldn’t get off the property in time.
“I don’t have anywhere to stay yet,” he told BoiseDev. “With this (possible) eviction on my record, it will be difficult to find a place because nobody wants to rent a place to somebody with an eviction. It doesn’t matter what the reason is.”
Lack of data leads to unanswered questions
It’s impossible to say how common Lopez’s situation is, but this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in the Treasure Valley.
BoiseDev reported on a similar situation last summer where a Hammett family narrowly avoided eviction by landing rental assistance at the last moment, but they were only able to stay three months because their landlord opted not to renew their lease after the state stopped paying their rent.
Reporting from Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet, found landlords filed an eviction in court against at least 191 households while they were in the process of filing an application for rental assistance between April and November of last year. One of the tenants interviewed in the story received a non-renewal notice on her lease and moved out of her apartment. One day after she turned over the keys, the state paid her landlord $2,030.
Public Records Requests filed by BoiseDev with IHFA to obtain data on emergency rental assistance statewide were denied under the Idaho Public Records Act’s exemption for “personal financial, family, health or similar personal information.” This prevented any data analysis by BoiseDev alongside statewide court records to see how many Idahoans paid off their back rent through taxpayer dollars and were eventually evicted anyway.
And beyond eviction court records, there is no way to track how many Idahoans are asked to leave their homes through a non-renewal of a lease agreement, which amounts to an informal eviction.
Jesse Tree’s Executive Director Ali Rabe said situations like Lopez’s haven’t been common with her clients largely because part of the process of getting rental assistance is case management to help improve communication between the landlord and the tenant. By building that strong relationship, it helps keep things from escalating into a court notice.
But, she said they have been seeing more and more clients returning months later after getting rental assistance looking for help with paying a security deposit on a new place or fighting an eviction because they overstayed their 30-day notice to leave their home. And with the tight housing market, people in this situation don’t have a lot of options.
“There’s a huge shortage of affordable homes so for anybody that’s lower-income their ability to find new housing is diminished, especially housing they can afford at their budget,” she said.
What if landlords had to give 60 days notice?
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, tried to bring a bill last month to address this problem.
His proposal, HB 624, would have required landlords to give tenants 60 days notice for increases to rent or for a non-renewal of the lease. Gannon said this would help tenants struggling to find new housing in an environment with a vacancy rate far under 1% for affordable units, or any rental at all.
“60 days is necessary to even have a chance of finding another place and quite frankly it might not be enough, but it’s better than the present 30-day notice,” Gannon told BoiseDev.
However, this idea didn’t pass muster with the House Judiciary and Rules Committee. Industry groups, like the Idaho Apartment Association and the Southwest Idaho Chapter of the National Association of Property Managers, opposed it because it would imbalance the landlord/tenant relationship and make it more difficult to resolve evictions by giving a 30-day notice ending a lease, like what happened with Lopez, instead of filing against tenants in court and costing both parties money.
While half of the legislators on the committee agreed with Gannon and voted to push the bill ahead to the floor, the other half decided it would constrict landlords and the free market too much for them to support. The vote was deadlocked at 4-4 and the meeting adjourned, leaving no resolution and the bill dead.
“We think we’ll do things like this to make things better for renters and we can’t make things better for renters without making things worse for landlords compared to tenants and that always results in shifts in the pricing because of supply and demand and one adjustment to make something better is going to result in a shift of pricing,” Rep. David Cannon, R-Blackfoot, said.