Brandy Meyers is too exhausted from narrowly avoiding eviction to do much celebrating.
Meyers, 44, and her four other family members have been renting a three-bedroom apartment off of Old Highway 30 in Hammett for the past two years. The white cinderblock walls and sunbaked courtyard aren’t anywhere close to fancy, but the $740 monthly rent and utilities is a lifesaver as her family tries to stay above water. With the cheaper rent, the income from her husband’s shifts at Walmart and her eldest son’s job at a Mountain Home mental health facility, they were scraping by.
Until they weren’t.
Meyers, who has an auto-immune disease and cannot work, got hit with COVID-19 in October. She tried to ride it out at home, but she finally had to go to the hospital when she couldn’t breathe. The virus had turned to pneumonia, requiring further treatment. She is recovered now, but the illness led to a steep wage garnishment on every one of her husband’s paychecks starting in April. The Meyers had the threat of eviction hanging over their heads by the end of June.
The combination of the federal eviction moratorium’s final weeks, federally funded rental assistance from Idaho Housing and Finance Association coming in at the final hour and two delayed eviction hearings kept them housed. It wasn’t easy.
“There’s a huge misconception that people are taking advantage of this situation,” Meyers said, sitting in her half-packed living room six days before the eviction hearing. “There might be some that are, but for the most part we just need help. And it’s not widely advertised that there’s help out there. You really have to dig for it.”
Idaho has millions available in rental assistance for low-income renters like the Meyers family from the various COVID relief packages coming out of Washington D.C. But, despite the high need, some families are struggling to access the assistance in time to avoid eviction, or at all. An all-online application is difficult for some users who may not have reliable internet access or the skills to get online and there are differing requirements at the two agencies administering the rental assistance to prove if COVID-19 impacted your bottom line.
And, if a household is evicted, that rental assistance cannot pay for a hotel room to stay in until a lease agreement is secured.
The Idaho State Legislature allocated $175 million in rental assistance to IHFA in early 2021 to assist Idahoans who live outside of Ada County through September 2022. Since then, $9.7 million has gone out. This program is a continuation of the rental assistance program the agency launched in June 2020, which has seen 14,000 applicants. Of those, 6,000 were turned down.
In Ada County, the City of Boise and Ada County allocated $24 million to the Boise City Ada County Housing Authority for its own, duplicate rental assistance program. As of July 14th, the agency paid out $7.8 million to 1,647 households. In mid-June, BCACHA officials told BoiseDev it had received 2,200 applications and denied 260.
Rental assistance just in the nick of time
Meyers wasn’t denied, but the clock nearly ran out.
She tried to work out a deal with her property manager in June, offering late payment or to work around the property when they couldn’t scratch together what they owed. By July 5th, the property manager of Hammet Haven Apartments served a three-day notice to pay rent, or face down a court proceeding. Meyers filed the necessary paperwork with her landlord declaring the family eligible for protection under the federal eviction moratorium hoping for relief.
The landlord plowed forward with the eviction and Meyers hit the internet looking for resources. She found out about IHFA’s rental assistance program and submitted an application, but she heard nothing. Meyers kept calling and calling, but couldn’t get through. As the eviction loomed, she finally received a call back about her application for assistance three days before the hearing.
Good News: Her family met all of the eligibility requirements.
Bad News: It would take seven to ten business days to process her application.
Without any guarantee of rental assistance and worries about whether a judge at the Elmore County Courthouse would enforce the eviction moratorium, Meyers and her husband John headed to the courthouse three days later. But, as luck would have it, the magistrate was a client for her landlord’s lawn care business and the hearing couldn’t proceed due to a conflict of interest. The same thing happened on Wednesday, leaving the county fresh out of magistrate judges.
By Friday, the Meyers returned to the courthouse and made their case before a Boise County judge who Zoomed into the basement courtroom. This time, Meyers came armed with a phone call from IHFA that came in 45 minutes before the final hearing letting her know that she was approved for IHFA to pay her back rent and three months of assistance moving forward.
Julie K. Buckley, representing the property manager, told the judge at the hearing that the eviction moratorium should not apply to Meyers’ apartment because it is not backed by government loans. When the judge asked why the dispute wasn’t resolved once Meyers got word about the rental assistance, Buckley said property management wouldn’t like to renew her lease.
“One of the requirements of the rental assistance is we do not evict the tenant,” Buckley told the judge. “A few months before this we told them we wouldn’t extend the agreement.”
Meyers countered, telling the judge if an eviction came down her family would be homeless. And, because the family is in the midst of a bankruptcy proceeding, the rental assistance is their landlord’s only hope of recouping their loss.
“We figured if (Buckley) was getting the rent money they would let us stay.”
‘This should be all hands on deck’
Over the weekend, the judge considered the case and ultimately dismissed the eviction. Meyers and her husband, their two sons and her two-year-old granddaughter are still in their home for now.
Situations like this weigh heavy on the mind of Idaho Legal Aid Services Associate Director Howard Belodoff. He said clients have been coming to his agency frustrated that they are being evicted before they can access assistance, similar to Meyers’ predicament. This can be especially troubling in cases where the only proof tenants have that they are behind on rent is their three-day pay or quit notice, and rental assistance takes seven to ten days or more to hit their landlord.
Or, he said landlords might get fed up with the bureaucracy and find a new tenant in Idaho’s unprecedented housing market and hike the rent.
“Where do they go?,” Belodoff said. “They’re living in their cars. There’s no room at the shelter. They have hundreds of families in hotels because somehow the rental assistance didn’t get to them and once they’re out it creates huge problems for them getting into a new place. It should be all hands on deck. This could be life and death for some of these people with COVID, pre-existing conditions of being outside in 105-degree weather, no place to go and just finding enough to eat.”
Paperwork is the biggest reason why rental assistance applicants to IHFA get denied. Roughly a third of applicants to the program have been denied because of improper paperwork confirming income, owed rent and other information. Another third have been denied because they did not respond to the agency’s follow-up requests for documents.
But, the easy thing about the application is proving you have been impacted by COVID-19. All an applicant has to do is check a box attesting to the agency that the virus was a factor in their economic hardship. This is in accordance with guidance from the U.S. Treasury telling agencies to rely on residents saying they have been impacted by the virus, not having to show documentation to prove it.
Brady Ellis, IHFA’s vice president for housing support programs, said any Idahoan at this point is impacted by COVID-19, whether they were sick or lost their job or not.
“We are not verifying (COVID-19 impact) in any way,” Ellis said. “Some people are indicating the housing market and price increases are due to COVID, which they may justify that impact through the inmigration to Idaho that was spurred by COVID. We’ve taken all of those types of reasons for eligibility.”
More paperwork required in Ada County
Things are going a little bit differently in Ada County.
When the program first launched earlier this year, BCACHA Executive Director Deanna Watson said they were leaning heavily on self-certification of COVID-19 impact and some other forms of documentation to get applications filled as quickly as possible. She said they added in some more steps to stop fraudulent applications coming in, but she said in recent months staff at the City of Boise and Ada County have been asking for more and more documents in their audits of the agencies.
This includes several small things, like the lengthier process of pulling bank records of applicants, instead of just reviewing screenshots of pay stubs or other documents. She said this adds hours to the process of looking at an application, and can lead the agency down “dead-end trails” that add more stress to the entire process for the applicant and staff.
“We have the self-attestation option from the Treasury (for COVID-19 impact),” Watson said. “It’s been there from the beginning. What we’re feeling is a desire on the part of the (city and county) to use that self-attestation less and take additional steps to try and get documentation to back up what’s being attested to.”
But, unlike IHFA, the biggest reasons for denial from the housing authority have been applicants outside of Ada County, applications from those who are already getting rental assistance, or their income was over the limit. Lack of proof of COVID-19 impact only resulted in roughly 12% of denials as of mid-June, according to BCACHA’s Housing Programs Director Jillian Patterson.
Multiple stakeholders, more possible roadblocks
In an email to BoiseDev about this process, Ada County spokesperson Elizabeth Duncan said policy changes were being implemented to “tighten the process” and ensure the housing authority does its due diligence on applicants. She said the county has no authority over BCACHA and deferred questions about the specific policy changes being implemented to Watson.
Commissioner Rod Beck, former Executive Director of IHFA, lauded the program’s efforts so far and said they are trying to aid as many people as possible while avoiding fraud.
“Our #1 objective is to provide local relief in Ada County to renters who, through no fault of their own, were negatively impacted by COVID,” he wrote in a statement. “So our goal is to keep the process precise and easy. We are trying to find the right balance between getting money out as quickly as possible but not paying out money where it shouldn’t be going.”
City of Boise spokesperson Lana Graybeal also declined to name specific policy changes, deferring to BCACHA. She said the city’s ultimate goal is to align BCACHA’s program with IHFA’s and use the same standards so it is a streamlined process, but discussions are still ongoing.
“The challenge lies in getting all of the major stakeholders on the same page so that the (housing authority) can uniformly administer the program on behalf of the City and County,” she wrote in an email.
While housing officials statewide mull over the details of application requirements, the CDC moratorium that kept Meyers in her home is set to expire at the end of July. She is grateful for the rental assistance and the relative security she landed after weeks of uncertainty. Despite the win, she’s not dancing in the streets of Hammett yet.
“People don’t know that help is there for one, and for two what units are they supposed to help get people into when there’s nothing out there,” she said, with a sigh. “It’s exhausting and it’s scary.”