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New federal housing program aims to house over 200 Idahoan families dealing with homelessness

Diana Slavik cried when she heard the news about her family’s new place to live. 

Earlier this year, she and her two teenage daughters lived in a duplex, hoping their name came up for a housing voucher and a place to use it. Their struggle with housing insecurity, which was already challenging because of a felony on her record from years ago, intensified as Boise’s supply of affordable rentals shrank. 

Slavik has several chronic illnesses that tire her out and cause her pain, making her unable to work. She cobbled together a combination of government benefits and food stamps, plus a stint living with an ex-fiance for several years to make her family’s rent in Boise. But as rent continued to rise, her luck ran out, and she and her daughters ended up in the Boise Rescue Mission’s City Light Home for Women about three years ago. 

After six months of living in the shelter, Slavik and her family stayed with friends for long stretches while she waited for housing assistance. Eventually, she made it onto the waiting list at CATCH and received some assistance to get her into a duplex for four months. Her landlord did not want to accept a housing voucher, so she had to find another place for her family. 

She was worried, wondering if she would have to return to the shelter or a friend’s couch after her four months of rental assistance from CATCH in the duplex ran out. Then, she got the call. There was a spot for her to use her housing voucher at the newly completed affordable housing development on Grove Street. Her family moved into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on March 1. 

“It’s a true blessing,” she said, looking out at her view of downtown Boise. “I have this to where I don’t have to worry about a home and I’m secured in this place. I don’t have to worry if I will be kicked out or lose my housing.”

Slavik is one of over 150 Idahoans who have been housed through a new program to provide housing vouchers for families struggling with homelessness issued in the last year as part of a new housing program from the Biden Administration. The Emergency Housing Vouchers program specifically targeted people fleeing domestic violence, recently dealing with homelessness, or in shelters during the pandemic. 

How does it work? 

Nationwide, this program added 70,000 new vouchers that provide ongoing rental assistance to low-income families trying to climb out of homelessness. Of those, Idaho received 217, and 154 have been given out to families like Slavik’s who are using it to pay their rent. The remaining vouchers throughout the state have been given to a family, but they are still looking for a place to accept them. 

This program is similar to Housing Choice Vouchers, which are commonly known as Section 8, where the voucher allows a low-income family to find a place to live under a certain rent threshold anywhere in the city and use government assistance to pay all or the vast majority of the rent with it. The tenant has to pay 30% of their income, whatever that is, and the voucher covers the rest.

Boise apartment growth
Construction at The Lucy and Thomas Logan apartments in Downtown Boise wrapped up earlier this year. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

But, unlike Section 8 vouchers, these vouchers come with extra flexibility aimed at rapidly housing the most at-risk Americans for staying chronically homeless. The program requires housing authorities administering the vouchers to work with their local network of nonprofits who provide housing assistance in each community, meaning social workers who manage housing wait lists are referring clients to the program. 

“I think we definitely wanted it to be a low barrier program because they are having unique challenges,” Danielle Garcia, a senior policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Public and Indian Housing, said in an interview. 

The voucher also has looser requirements around documentation than the Section 8 voucher because people in the homeless community might have lost their social security card or other documents over the years. Recipients of the program are also required to get help searching for housing that will accept the voucher from nonprofit partners, and they have up to 120 days to find a fit, rather than 60 days with Section 8. 

‘A huge gift’

The vouchers also come with some extra funding to give potential clients a boost into housing. 

Each comes with $3,500 in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act package, which can be used to help a client find a place to live. It can be used to pay off past debts or past due utilities they might owe, cover the cost of furniture and household goods to move in with, or even as an incentive for a landlord to agree to rent to someone exiting homelessness when there are so many other people to choose from. 

Jette Curtis, the program manager for CATCH’s CONNECT program, told BoiseDev that the vouchers have been helpful to bridge the gap to keep people housed when there are simply no units in the price range of extremely low-income Boiseans left anymore. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers in Ada County is years long, and the waiting list only opens every once in a while due to the high demand, so this influx of vouchers into Idaho came at a time when they were sorely needed. 

As the housing crisis continues in the City of Boise and Ada County, people experiencing homelessness are being left unhoused for longer. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

“These EHVs have been a huge gift to our folks and really demonstrate the power of an income-based voucher during this affordable housing crisis,” Jette Curtis, CATCH’s CONNECT program manager, told BoiseDev. “Without a voucher, folks are hard pressed to find units they can afford on low and even moderate incomes in this market.”

CATCH follows the rapid rehousing model where they give people rental assistance and case management to find a place as soon as possible, instead of leaving people taking up finite space in emergency shelters while they find work and save up enough for a place to live. The idea behind this is that it minimizes the trauma people go through by putting them back under their own roof as soon as possible while also providing support to keep them housed once they find a new place. 

This sort of assistance was a savior for Slavik’s family, who likely would have had to return to the shelter without rental assistance. She spent a year in an Idaho prison after being sentenced for a felony drug offense in 2017 and has been clean since, but many landlords look for felonies that are older than a decade to rent to someone. But since they found a place, her family is settling into a normal rhythm for the first time in years. 

“The kids feel stable now and they have their own bedrooms now,” she said. “They’re teenage girls, so they really like having their own space.”

Where were the vouchers disseminated?

Of the 217 vouchers Idaho received, 114 went to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. 

These vouchers cover most of the state, with clients referred from IHFA’s branch offices in Coeur D’Alene, Lewiston, Twin Falls, and Idaho Falls. Right now, IHFA has roughly 60% of those vouchers paying for someone’s housing, while the reaming vouchers have been assigned to Idahoans looking for a place that will accept the assistance so they can move in. The program will be wholly leased if everyone with a voucher finds a home. 

IHFA’s Vice President for Housing Support Programs Brady Ellis said annual counts show roughly 9,000 Idahoans struggling with homelessness yearly. He expects this problem to only worsen as rents skyrocket throughout the Gem State. He said things would only continue to deteriorate if there isn’t more focus on programs like this that address the barriers keeping people from climbing out of homelessness. 

“I think nationally if we don’t put more money into specific populations and specific programs that situation is going to get worse,” Ellis said. “We’re seeing and hearing about challenges in Idaho throughout a whole bunch of communities where their homelessness is growing, and it’s harder and harder to find a place to rent.”

The Southwest Idaho Housing Authority, which covers Washington, Valley, Payette, Gem, Boise, Canyon, Elmore, and Owyhee counties, received 47 vouchers. Of those, 40 have been used and seven more people are looking for housing, Housing Authority Director Elisa Velasco told BoiseDev last month. The majority of the people using the vouchers live in the Treasure Valley. 

The other 41 vouchers went to the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority. Director Deanna Watson said her housing authority has a utilization rate of over 80% with 37 of the vouchers being used by tenants. She said some tenants have gotten the voucher and then moved, given it up for other reasons, or, in one case, passed away, but the program has hovered above the utilization rate for Section 8 vouchers. 

The sign outside of the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

The program will expire next year, and these vouchers won’t be available to new people exiting homelessness. However, if people successfully use the assistance when it expires, they won’t have to move or lose their help. 

“This program ends September of 2023,” Watson said. “Those who are receiving assistance can continue, but once they leave, then that voucher gets reduced from our overall number of vouchers.”

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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