Carly Morisette is on the hunt for a new home just in time for the holidays.
Six and a half years after she moved into her small Depot Bench rental home, Morisette, 47, got a letter from her landlord detailing plans to renovate the house. To make way for the substantial overhaul of the aging structure, Morisette has two months to find a new place to live in Boise’s increasingly cut throat housing market.
“I’ve put in applications and I’m waiting to hear back from them, but the problem is I am competing with 15, 20 other people because there’s a lot of people looking right now, but not a whole lot out there,” she said.
Her landlord was apologetic and wrote a letter of recommendation to go along with Morrisette’s applications for new apartments. She wasn’t ordered to leave by order of the court or illegally in the middle of her lease, but Morisette joins a growing number of Boiseans forced to leave their homes because landlords are planning upgrades to seek higher rents.
No way to track the problem
Anecdotal reports of so-called ‘renovictions’, like Morisette’s, are becoming an increasingly common way Boiseans leave their homes. Unlike formal evictions with court records or the extensive documentation of real estate sales, there is no data available to track displacement from renovations as the city changes and property values, and rents, skyrocket.
Ali Rabe, executive director at eviction prevention nonprofit Jesse Tree, hears about the problem frequently from clients looking for affordable rentals in the Treasure Valley even though there’s no concrete data available.
“If a landlord can rent out a property at a higher rate or make a huge windfall by selling their rental, many are making that economic choice to do that and this is going to continue to be a problem as we see more growth,” she said. “We can guess and we can listen to the stories of people it’s happening to and we can listen to landlords or to realtors or developers and I think they would all tell us this is happening, but there’s no way to track it and to know across the community what the real impact is.”
Morisette paid $650 per month to rent her one bedroom house with a sizable yard, which she admits she knew wouldn’t last. She is disabled and only works a few hours at her nephew’s dog daycare on the weekends so she has an extremely limited income. Luckily, she is planning to move in with her boyfriend so they can combine their incomes and rent a place up to $1,300 per month.
But even with a higher budget than many low-income renters, she keeps striking out. Morisette hopes for a house so her two energetic dogs can have a place to play, but pet fees either put rentals out of her price range or she doesn’t get a call back at all. If she can’t find a place, she can live temporarily with her nephew, but the house is crowded with his family and small business so it’s not an ideal choice.
“I know I won’t be living in my car because I have a place to go, but it’s just the timing is bad,” she said. “It’s the holidays, and it’s winter time, and it’s a pandemic and how do you come up with a place to live and the money to get into that place during these kinds of times.”
A ‘workaround’ to find new tenants
‘Renovictions’ can take different forms. Sometimes, it’s an independent landlord choosing to sell the home or move back in, displacing the renter. Other times it’s an out-of-state investor purchasing an apartment complex, completing renovations and rapidly increasing the rent along with it. Existing tenants can choose to pay higher rent to stay in the newly spruced up complex or go in search of a new apartment while their old unit is renovated.
The Idaho Press reported an example of this in 2019. Residents of Reedhouse Apartments off Parkcenter Boulevard saw steep increases from $1,175 monthly to $1,625 per month for a two-bedroom in February 2019. This came after Beverly Hills-based real estate investment company Kennedy Wilson purchased the complex in November 2018. It was the fifth complex the company purchased in Boise since 2014 at the time of the article’s publication.
Other complexes purchased by Kennedy Wilson also saw rent hikes after the company purchased the properties, according to the Idaho Press.
Anthony Yenason, community engagement specialist with Intermountain Fair Housing Council and a member of renter advocacy group Boise Renters United, is concerned landlords are using renovations as a way to displace tenants while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s eviction moratorium is in effect through the end of the year. This order prevents residents who meet income requirements and seek assistance from being evicted in court, but it does not forgive rent owed by the tenant.
Another concern of Yenason’s is landlords using renovations as a way to change the people they rent to. They said this can conflict with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination against people due to their race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability.
“We often see this from a fair housing angle that housing providers will decide they want to swap out some clientele they have for a different clientele and often that can be a fair housing issue and often the people they’re swapping out are people of color, people with disabilities, families or people with housing vouchers,” they said. “The idea (landlords) can go to those subgroups and say ‘we don’t want to rent to you people anymore’, that’s problematic, but if they’re doing it in this backdoor way it is a workaround for swapping out clientele.”
Networking and old fashioned luck needed for renters
Many displaced renters displaced due to a renovation say it took a Hail Mary to find a new place to live in Boise’s market.
John Barrie, 40, got a note from his landlord last November letting him know the owner planned to renovate his rental home when his lease ended and sell it after his family lived there for twelve years. With three months to find a new place to go, he set to work looking for a place for his family of four.
He and his wife both work at Boise State University and his two children attend Boise Public Schools so they didn’t want to leave the city. When they looked around, all he could find were two bedroom homes or openings in Eagle or Meridian. If a place was open, pets weren’t allowed.
A stroke of luck saved him at the last minute.
“We had used up a month of our two months time period and hadn’t really found anywhere that great looking and then just fortunately we were over visiting my mother-in-law and saw that her neighbors were in the process of moving out and she was like ‘oh the woman who owns that house was my neighbor and I can put in a good word for you’,” he said. “I don’t know what we would have done without that networking.”
They moved into the Northwest Boise home and got settled, but it came with a dramatic rent increase. In their old home, Barrie paid $875, but now his rent is $1,400. Barrie said the only reason he could make the new house work financially is because a few months before the move he had been promoted at work. The original plan was to use the new income to pay off his car or make progress on the couple’s student loans, but instead all of the extra income went to their rent increase.
“There was no opportunity if we wanted to pay more and think about staying,” Barrie said, about being asked to move. “I understand it’s their property, but we had lived there 12 years, seen our kids spend most of our childhood there and then it was over in a second.”