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Staying Home

Boise releases some rental assistance funds

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On Jan. 4, James M. Jones gathered up his files, including a green New Year's Day eviction notice from the Ada County Sheriff's Office, and headed to the El-Ada Community Action Partnership offices on Vista Avenue.

Because he was evicted on a federal holiday, Jones got a few extra days at home--a house that had been in his family since 1961. After his mother died, Jones lost the house, though he's managed to remain there, fighting the new owners--an out-of-state pension fund--through personal bankruptcies and court battles over prior evictions.

This time, Jones cobbled together some back payments from an estranged brother and settled with the landlord, but the settlement will not last long.

"I'm looking for a way to stay in the house," Jones said.

Jones was at El-Ada to apply for rental assistance on the first day the City of Boise released its Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program, or HPRP, funds. Part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the HPRP requirements last March and handed down $1.5 billion to the states in September. By October, every region of Idaho except Ada County had started distributing rental and utility assistance, according to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, which manages the bulk of Idaho's grants.

Attorneys with Idaho Legal Aid have criticized the delayed rollout of Boise's homelessness prevention funds, less than half of which have now been released.

"Everybody involved has known about it for a long time," said Ritchie Eppink, an attorney with Idaho Legal Aid Services Inc. who represents people at risk of losing their housing. "We've been asking them for this money and other money as well."

The City of Boise received $533,000 in HPRP funds directly from the stimulus act. The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority and El-Ada are now providing that money to people at risk of becoming homeless or who have recently become homeless. But another $730,000 slated for Boise is being held up at the Idaho Housing and Finance Association because the guidelines prevent grants directly to housing authorities that are non-governmental and for profit, as Boise's housing authority is.

Housing providers acknowledge the delay but place the blame on the feds for writing complicated rules for the HPRP money and tracking the grants more vigilantly.

"It's really trying to figure out how to set up a program in a hurry that doesn't come back and bite you," said Deanna Watson, executive director at the Boise and Ada County housing authorities. The agency was unsure if it would be part of the HPRP program until late in December.

On Monday, representatives of the housing authority and El-Ada worked through dozens of applicants ranging from Jones, a trained attorney who has been disabled since 1979, to out-of-work secretaries and construction workers and groups of refugees whose resettlement benefits have run out and who remain housed because of the generosity of several Boise landlords.

But the first wave of the HPRP funds in Boise will only help 30 to 60 families, said Dalynn Kuster, El-Ada program manager.

"The money is going to run out way before we have everybody served," she said.

Janet Lovell-Smith, grants manager for the IHFA, said that the demand for the funds has been high across the state. In the Pocatello region, providers got five to six times the normal requests for rental assistance in November and December.

But Eppink said $533,000 should go further than 30 to 60 families and that the IHFA funds should be released immediately as well.

Eppink and Legal Aid attorney Zoe Ann Olson helped their clients get HPRP interviews on Monday and raised concerns about some of the questions being asked. The city and housing authorities consider HPRP funds to have a special threshold in that they are targeted to people who have a good chance of getting back on their feet in the near future.

"This program in general is for those households that are in imminent risk of eviction or for those who have recently lost their housing and are currently homeless and have a high probability of achieving rent stability," said Jim Birdsall, manager of Boise's Housing and Community Development Department.

But Eppink argues that the way the standard is being interpreted--the requirement for moderate barriers to rent stability--is too subjective and could be used to screen out certain poor people from receiving the funds.

"'Moderate barriers' is a way of reading a worthy-poor requirement into the program," Eppink said, allowing the city to deny funds to deadbeats or the disabled, for example.

The city, housing services and Legal Aid have met many times to discuss the program in recent months, but even as it rolled out, Kuster acknowledged that all the kinks had not been worked out. It was unclear how long it would take to make payments once people were approved, she said.

Jones heard about the program from a neighbor and got one of the first appointments. So did Chacho Ramirez, who has done construction work for 25 years but was laid off a few months ago and whose rent and $300 electricity bill were coming due.

"These guys don't wait for you," Ramirez said. "You don't got the money, you're out."