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Idaho's Empty Housing Trust Fund

Boise builds a homelessness strategy while the Idaho Legislature twiddles its thumbs

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Passed during the 1992 legislative session, the Idaho Housing Trust Fund was designed to help low-income Idahoans find safe, affordable housing by funneling state and matching federal dollars into local governments and nonprofits. In the last quarter-century, the Idaho Legislature hasn't put a dime into it. For some, it signifies a missed opportunity for the state of Idaho to take a leadership role in addressing homelessness and housing insecurity.

"[Tackling these problems] requires the state, the city and the county coming together and putting tools on the table," said Idaho Rep. Mat Erpelding. "The state, currently, is the only one that has put almost nothing on the table to deal with the situation."

What had been designed as a source of state dollars that could be used to help "low-income and very low-income citizens in meeting their basic housing needs" through a wide variety of low-income housing programs has never been given a funding source or allocations to achieve its purpose. Few expect that funding to come any time soon.

Erpelding came across the neglected trust fund while researching resources for workforce housing. For Boise city leaders, it could be a potential resource in its recently announced "Housing First" strategy to battle chronic homelessness. At a Feb. 9 press event, the city unveiled its plan to house homeless Boiseans in scattered-site and single-location housing, then provide them with mental health, substance abuse and other city services.

The city's plan includes partnering with a wide variety of stakeholders, including the Idaho Housing and Finance Administration, CATCH, the Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority and Terry Reilly Health Services. Together, they will build a single-site housing complex, using approximately $1 million in one-time funds from the city of Boise and $5.5 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits from the IHFA. For scattered-site housing, they'll use funds from Boise city stock, BCACHA and private landlords.

"The best alternative is to get someone a safe, clean place to live first," Bieter said. "Only then can you get to the root cause of homelessness."

According to a study compiled by Vanessa Fry, project coordinator for the Public Policy Research Center at Boise State University, Boise's approximately 100 chronically homeless people cost the community more than $5.3 million each year, including $3.8 million for emergency medical services and $750,000 to the Ada County Jail. Boise's housing-first strategy is expected to cost the city approximately $1.6 million and city leaders have already echoed Erpelding's observation about the state's lack of commitment when it comes to urban issues like homelessness.

"There's a housing fund at the state level. There's no money in it," said city of Boise Director of Community Partnerships Diana Lachiondo at a City Club forum on homeless services Feb. 10.

Housing-first programs have been successful elsewhere—notably in Utah, which experienced a 74 percent drop in homelessness—but Utah's program included strong support from its legislature and its lieutenant governor, who served as chairman of its homelessness coordinating committee.

In a 2014 interview with Boise Weekly, Lloyd Pendleton, who once worked in the welfare department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, explained how important that support is.

"When you have the state supporting your effort, it becomes a whole lot easier because counties and cities line up after," said Pendleton, who was also a Ford Motor Company executive and adviser for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

In the early 1990s, the Idaho Legislature recognized the housing needs of low-income families and individuals weren't being met, and determined a trust fund could be used to attract matching federal dollars that could then be distributed to cities, counties and other organizations. The Idaho Housing Trust Fund cleared the Legislature, but lawmakers couldn't agree on a funding mechanism for the program. An advisory board was created to solve the problem but money never materialized.

"There was just no success," said IHFA Executive Director Gerald Hunter. "We couldn't get success in terms of funding, and in consequence it finally just evaporated, and at that point there were no new board members because it had failed. That's where it's been ever since."

Hunter added that doesn't mean federal or state funds are being left on the table when it comes to housing initiatives for Idaho cities. In addressing chronic homelessness in Boise, he said there will likely be plenty of "interplay" between the city and state agencies like the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, particularly when it comes to the services side of the city's plan. He doesn't expect money for housing to come from the state, however.

"[Affordable housing] is not something the state has funded over time," he said.

For him, affordable housing solutions, whether for homelessness programs or workforce housing, fall into an urban category of spending that doesn't jibe with many of Idaho's rurally oriented legislators.

"Any form of public transit support, the Idaho Housing Trust Fund, local option tax, opportunities, development tools for bonding—they're not even on the radar in that body," he said.

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