For decades, Canyon County many considered a reliable place for low-income renters to find a place they could afford to live.
But not so much anymore.
As the Treasure Valley’s population swelled in recent years, home prices and rents shot up at a record pace along with it. Prices in Boise and its immediate Ada County suburbs are rising so high many workers are leaving the county and searching further afield for an apartment to rent within their price range. They’re searching in Ada County’s relatively more affordable neighbor to the west, but there’s not much available anymore there either.
Nonprofits and housing authorities working to serve low-income Idahoans in Canyon County are finding it harder and harder to house the growing number of people in need of low-cost housing. Some of the need comes from longtime Canyon County residents who are being priced out as rents rise. Other demand stems from residents leaving Ada County looking for a low-cost refuge within driving distance of Boise.
Years-long waiting lists
Nampa Housing Authority Executive Director Andy Rodriguez said for years most of the applicants for housing through his agency were Canyon County residents, but now that’s changing. Many people in need are now from Ada County or even out of state.
“It’s making it more and more difficult for people who are from here to live here,” he said. “A lot of folks are moving away, even further west, some perhaps further north and it’s becoming really problematic for our families that live in Nampa to be able to stay here because it’s getting so expensive.”
It’s the same story in Caldwell. Canyon County’s housing prices and rents may come in lower than Ada, but wages are also further behind. Caldwell Housing Authority Executive Director Mike Dittenber said many people think of Canyon County as more affordable, but because of the wage disparity the problem is even worse.
The median income in Canyon County is $49,143 compared to $63,137 in Ada County, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. 9.7% of Ada County residents live below the poverty line, compared to 11.5% in Canyon County.
Dittenber said Canyon County absorbing more and more of Ada County’s priced out low income workers further burdens the smaller county and stretches other resources thin.
“When we try to solve one problem by being a bedroom community for a bigger city, we create other problems like traffic, congestion and under-maintained roads,” he said. “It’s displacing one problem for another.”
In mid-2018, Dittenber estimated Caldwell was 2,000 units short of the affordable housing the community needed. Now, he guesses the gap has widened to 2,500 units short of demand.
How to expand?
Nampa and Caldwell’s housing authorities only have 142 and 225 units respectively, but they have creative plans to expand their reach and serve more residents.
In Caldwell, Dittenber is in the process of creating an RV park near the authority’s rural housing complex Farmway Village for low-income residents to park their vehicles. This would both create a low-cost way for the housing authority to serve residents and give more stability to the growing number of Canyon County residents living out of their vehicles because they can’t afford rent.
“It won’t take you long to point out 10 or 12 places along the main route in Caldwell where people are living in RVs,” he said. “As sad as it may be, how do we get them to a place where they have running water and it’s clean? How do we get to a point where their sewer is being sanitarily disposed of or their kids aren’t playing behind buildings?”
The project, which crews would building phases, would have roughly 250 spaces in six different phases if approved by the City of Caldwell in the coming weeks. Unlike other parks where new vehicles are often required and rents to park are high, these spaces would be reserved for low-income residents and requirements for vehicles would be more lax in order to accommodate as many people as possible. It would also put the residents near the Head Start program, laundry services and a store operated by Caldwell Housing Authority.
Rodriguez is taking a different approach to build more permanent units in Nampa.
He is in the process of taking advantage of a program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for smaller housing authorities so Rodriguez can open new units. Currently, Nampa Housing Authority is prohibited to do this because of the 1999 Faircloth Act, which limited the construction of public housing.
The way it works is the Nampa Housing Authority plans to enter into a partnership with Southwestern Idaho Cooperative Housing Authority so it can be classified under the Section 8 program. Once the partnership is formalized at the beginning of 2021, he hopes to use financing from local banks and start small instead of using federal funds for big purchases to hasten the process of adding new units.
“My board doesn’t want me to go out and buy an apartment complex, but let’s buy a duplex if we can or let’s buy a fourplex and grow from there,” he said. “If I grow by one fourplex, I can double it without putting too much financial burden on the agency.”
Homelessness with fewer resources
In the meantime while more units are in development, social workers are having a harder and harder time every year finding a place for their clients to go.
CATCH, a nonprofit helping those experiencing homelessness find housing with rental assistance and supportive services, is struggling to find places their clients can afford long term. CATCH Case Manager Crystal Arteaga-Juarez said the shortage of units makes it difficult, but the lack of resources available in the more rural area as compared to Boise makes it an uphill battle.
Public transportation is even less accessible in Canyon County than Ada County and there are fewer mental health providers and other places for those without a home to turn to. This makes homelessness a more solitary experience and it’s more difficult to build the relationships and trust necessary to convince a landlord to take in a client who is on the street.
“It’s harder to get to a mental health agency out in Parma, as opposed to Meridian and Boise,” Arteaga-Juarez said. “At the moment a lot of our clients have pretty decent resources coming into the system, but it’s hard when you find a client who doesn’t have reference letters or a provider to describe their past mental health history. (Their experience) was a little more solitary and not really verifiable and that’s hard to put on applications.”
CATCH helps clients by paying back rent, utilities and deposits to help their clients get over hurdles keeping them from a place of their own. But, the organization can only place clients in units under limits set by the federal government. Because of the rise in rents, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has increase this limit, but Arteaga-Juarez said that doesn’t help clients because they can’t afford it long-term on their wages.
“Before, a two bedroom can’t be over $850 and now it’s $1000, but the hardest time getting housing is for clients who can even afford that,” she said. “A lot of them that have minimum wage jobs or who are single parents are probably the hardest clients to find affordable housing for.”
So, what is being done?
Multiple affordable housing complexes are either newly open or under construction in Nampa, particularly with a focus on low-income seniors. Colorado Gardens, Mercy Creek Apartments and Sky Ridge Apartments opened in the past year and a half, bringing online 170 units for income-qualified residents 55 and up.
Terry Reilly Health Services recently completed the construction of a 50-unit complex with a health clinic opening in Caldwell for low-income seniors.
The City of Nampa also started using its Community Development Block Grants from the federal government to help offset the costs of affordable housing projects in fiscal year 2019. If the city’s third round of allocations is approved, these funds have assisted two low-income families to purchase a single family home and the development of a duplex and an 81 unit apartment complex.
“We hope to continue with this strategy as long as the need is there to help keep developers pointing their additional resources for development in our direction,” Nampa Community Development Program Manager Matt Jamison said.
Not everyone is chomping at the bit to build more affordable housing though.
In August, the Canyon County Commissioners turned down an application to build 23 units of housing to be sold at affordable rates on 36 acres in the Sunnyslope area near Caldwell. The land, which is currently being used as farmland, was next to an orchard owned by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After an hours-long hearing, Commissioners decided although they supported affordable housing, preserving agricultural land in the area trumped the need for the homes, according to the Idaho Press.
Decisions from elected officials and some residents’ prejudice against affordable housing development frustrate Dittenber, as he watches the waitlist at the Caldwell Housing Authority grow longer every day.
“I’m betting you know somebody, and we all know somebody, who has somebody living with them or couch surfed or somebody who is in desperate need to find housing,” he said. “We all know of somebody and for whatever reason in Canyon County there’s not that political will to say ‘how can we take care of everybody.’”