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The Hidden Shame of Boise's Historic-Low Vacancy Rate

Some landlords won't be bothered with vouchers for homeless vets

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On any given night, more than 100 veterans in the Boise metro area sleep on the streets, or are in some type of shelter or transitional housing, according to the latest official Point in Time headcount of the homeless. Of that number, approximately 30 vets are eligible for federally funded rent payment vouchers. On the surface, that seems like good news. But due to Boise's historic-low vacancy rate, the majority of those vets remain homeless because apartments either aren't available or landlords won't be bothered with handling the paperwork.

"It's foolish to wait while there are people living and possibly dying on the streets," said Diana Lachiondo, director of community partnerships for the City of Boise. "Right now the 2 percent vacancy [rate] makes it very difficult for people to find affordable housing."

Recent efforts to combat homelessness from Lachiondo's colleagues at Boise City Hall and veteran advocacy groups include the much-anticipated construction of a dedicated shelter where homeless vets won't face discrimination by landlords or property managers. Boise officials gave the thumbs up to the project in spring 2017 and a developer should be selected by the end of this summer. If all goes as planned, an apartment complex of 20-30 veterans-only units could open its doors by the fall of 2020. Funding will come from private donations, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, and the City of Boise, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will pay for supportive services.

"It's a huge opportunity for Boise," Lachiondo said. "This is truly a community that cares about veterans, and this is our opportunity to show it's more than just words."

The City of Boise's apartment occupancy has hovered between 98 and 99 percent for more than a year. And then there's the issue of what is considered "affordable" when it comes to housing. According to city officials, "affordable" breaks down into several tiers. For example, a person making $13,550 per year would fall into the "extremely low" category, so affordable rent would be about $339 per month. In the "very low" category would be people with an annual income of $22,550, who might consider $564 per month an affordable rent. That said, the inventory of available rentals at those price points is practically non-existent.

"A healthy vacancy rate is somewhere around 5 or 6 percent. But a 2 percent or lower vacancy rate is unhealthy," Lachiondo said.

In today's marketplace, where property owners are at the top of the food chain, some landlords don't bother to take federally funded vouchers to assist homeless veterans. On top of that dilemma is the paperwork that the voucher program requires. As a result, the list of available properties dwindles down to a precious few.

"Some homeless veterans have significant barriers, which makes them not very competitive in the housing market," said Sara Webster, who coordinates the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program at the Boise office of Veterans Affairs. "Basic tenancy requirements will look at criminal, legal and renter history. There are a lot of things to overcome and property managers can be pretty selective."

This past April, Idaho was one of five states that received a total of nearly $5 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs to help fund housing vouchers. The majority of the vouchers in Idaho are earmarked for Ada County, where the need is greatest. At the time, veteran officials said the financial boost was necessary due to the increased number of homeless vets living in cars, by the river or on the street. But those same vouchers are only pieces of paper if a landlord won't file the VA paperwork, and instead opts for a more affluent tenant.

That's why veterans advocates were particularly excited to see the City of Boise issue a request for proposal (RFP) in April to developers interested in constructing "permanent, supportive housing, through public-private partnerships, for veterans experiencing homelessness within the city." By mid-May, the City of Boise had received two proposals, one from Boise-based Northwest Real Estate Group to build a complex of 30 units, and another from Eagle-based Pacific West Companies to build a complex of 22 units.

Once a developer is chosen, ground is broken and the complex becomes reality, presumably sometime in 2020, the VA Medical Center in Boise will be on site to provide clinical services that they said will be "more holistic" than standard types of assistance.

"When you're dealing with a population who's homeless, you're not just treating houselessness. There are a lot of issues and barriers," said Webster. "This is really a collaborative effort to help solve some of these problems and help these families and individuals find homes."

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