It's called the "Zip Code Syndrome" and it's all-too-familiar to the growing class of Idaho's working poor who scoff at economists' analyses of an improving economy or media accounts of "affordable" housing that tops $1,200 per month.
Talk of the syndrome began surfacing soon after the United Way of Treasure Valley published its sobering 2014 Community Assessment. It's a Catch 22-like struggle of finding a livable-wage job and affordable housing within reasonable proximity. Too many families have learned that when they find acceptable housing that costs $50-$75 less a month in rent, they're farther from Boise's downtown core, thus driving up the costs of getting to work.
One example United Way uses is a married couple with two children, earning approximately $3,000 per month in one full-time and another part-time job. Take out $900 each month in rent; $200 in utilities; $300 for transportation, fuel and insurance; $1,000 for the children's needs; $400 for food; and $240 for health care costs, and they're already ankle deep in red ink and haven't put away a penny for savings.
That hypothetical family would land in the category of "very-low income" (less than 50 percent of Boise's median income of $61,300) to receive some form of assistance funded by Community Development Block Grant dollars. A family of four with an annual gross income of $24,000 (30 percent of the median income) would land in the category of "extremely low income."
More than a few families need that assistance. The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority provides rental assistance to more than 2,200 families each month, totaling nearly $1 million. The authority owns and operates four rental properties—Liberty Park, Nez Perce, Shoreline Plaza and Vine Terrace apartments, all in Boise—but click on any of the properties' websites and you'll get the same message: "At this time, no units are available."
The dilemma grows with the ever-shrinking availability of rental units anywhere in Boise.
"Right now, we're hearing that the rental vacancy rate is somewhere between 1 to 3 percent; that's incredibly tight," said Diana Lachiondo, director of Community Partnerships for the city of Boise. "That's the lowest vacancy rate that we can remember."
Lachiondo stood before a full house of attendees—including service providers, property managers, scholars, law enforcement and engaged citizens—at the first-of-its-kind housing and homeless roundtable discussion May 12. Before the day was through, she would make the same presentation to another diverse group at the Boise Main Library and, by May 22, she will have stood before scores of people in an effort to bring greater focus and urgency to a dilemma that isn't going away anytime soon and has wide-reaching tentacles.
"To be clear, we're not just talking about homelessness or housing here," Lachiondo later told Boise Weekly. "This is about economic development. This is about jobs. This is about education. This is about public safety. This is about where the city wants to go with this."
Before BW could ask another question, Lachiondo quickly added," And this is certainly not just about the city of Boise. We're not a service provider. This will take numerous partners or, quite frankly, we want to be successful with this."
"This" is a new approach for the city, including a different strategy to help struggling families find more rental properties and, perhaps most aggressively, an extremely different tactic to address the issue of chronic homelessness. Those new ideas, however, are rooted in something that is very much a part of Boise's present: Allumbaugh House.
A House is Not a Home
To be sure, practically every private and public service entity agreed that the Treasure Valley was in desperate need of a detox center. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Ada County, Saint Al's and St. Luke's hospitals, law enforcement throughout the valley, and the cities of Boise and Meridian were all on board, at least verbally. Equally funding the construction, maintenance and operation of the facility was another matter. Pulling teeth was easier than convincing one another that each of the entities had everything to gain from the facility. Ultimately, Boise took the lead in funding the construction of Allumbaugh House, which finally opened its doors five years ago this month. But it wasn't until 2014 when the Idaho Legislature finally agreed to fund operational costs, beginning this year.
It's fair to say that minor miracles are possible at Allumbaugh House, managed by the nonprofit Terry Reilly Health Services. Men and women who in Boise's not-to-distant past had been tossed into the Ada County Jail now have the opportunity to receive medically monitored detoxification and short-term residential crisis mental health at the North Allumbaugh Street facility.
"I think Allumbaugh House set the standard for a lot of things that we're doing these days," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. "Whether it's the pre-K program or energizing the Vista neighborhood, we're trying to tackle some pretty big issues, but we have to do that with a lot more community partnerships."
Here's the sad news at Allumbaugh House: too many men and women who leave the facility with a new lease on life can't secure a lease for somewhere to live.
"We're hearing that 51 percent of the folks at Allumbaugh House are homeless," said Lachiondo. "So what does that mean? They're coming back to the street. We don't have to guess what their chances are for any amount of success."
After more than an hour of seemingly unending bad news, Lachiondo's presentation took a turn. For the record, it was at 10:06 a.m. on May 12 when she unveiled something called H.E.L.P., short for Housing Education and Leasing Partnership—a plan designed to facilitate more landlord/tenant relationships involving people struggling to put a roof over their heads.
"This is going to happen," said Lachiondo. "We're set to launch this on June 1."
The idea stems back to an event that Lachiondo and her boss hosted in late 2014.
"Mayor Bieter and I gathered a group of landlords and property managers from across the Treasure Valley and we needed to talk about the possibility of them renting more apartments and houses to people struggling to find a home," said Lachiondo.
City officials were well aware of the many barriers to secure a unit in an extremely tight rental market: poor credit, inadequate or no income, legal problems all hinder or outright block a potential tenant's chance of signing a lease. Couple that with the possibility that a tenant might be struggling with behavioral issues and it's not the easiest landlord/tenant relationship.
"I honestly expected the property managers to say they needed a bucket of money to help pay for damage to rental units," said Lachiondo. "Instead, what we heard them say was, 'We have a heart for this but we need your help.'"
Multiple property managers told Lachiondo they simply didn't have the capacity to become quasi-case managers for their tenants.
"So we came up with a plan to provide, let's say a 'case manager' for the landlord, giving them someone to call in case of an issue with a tenant," she said.
As a result, the city of Boise has contracted with Boise-based El-Ada Community Action Partnership to manage H.E.L.P.
El-Ada's first step is to hire a so-called "housing provider liaison" who will be that case manager for landlords. El-Ada will also begin, starting this summer, what it calls a "second chance renter rehabilitation program" where potential tenants will receive certification giving them a leg-up to secure a rental. Finally, the H.E.L.P. program will partner with several community service providers to make sure that tenants and landlords are readily accessing the programs that will enhance that relationship.
"Make no mistake, no one is forcing landlords to participate. It's a very tight market, but it is really great to hear that more landlords say they want to help. And a rental voucher, backing up that client, is a pretty nice guarantee for a landlord," said Lachiondo. "That said, El-Ada is really anxious to talk to a lot more landlords to participate in the program."
The goal of the first year of the program is to help as many as 140 adults (or approximately 70) families with rental assistance, H.E.L.P. certification and service to landlords in times of trouble.
Up next at the May 12 meeting was a significant departure for the city of Boise: A proposal to tackle the huge dilemma that is chronic homelessness. The possible solution includes large corporate or philanthropic funders—an element that is rarely seen at the table when it comes to discussing the chronically homeless.
The United States government officially defines a chronically homeless individual as "someone who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years and has a disability." They tend to have "high rates of behavioral health problems, including severe mental illness and substance abuse disorders, conditions that may be exacerbated by physical illness, injury or trauma," according the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Addressing the causes and symptoms of homelessness are as complex as addressing recidivism in our prisons, a failing education system or exploding health care costs. Stakeholders and the public agree that the issue must be confronted, but become divided when considering how—or even if—to invest in long-term strategies with no proof of success. That's where something called P.F.S., or Pay For Success, comes in.
It's the simplest of business strategies—don't pay for something until you get it—but it rarely intersects with social welfare. The P.F.S. strategy comes out of the University of Utah's Policy Innovation Lab. The key is to identify a large corporate or philanthropic funder to partner with a service provider (or team of providers) to secure long-term solutions to help minimize chronic homelessness.
"But by no means is this a Boise-only project. We can't do this alone, not by a longshot. But we're going to get things going," said Lachiondo, who added that a workshop is already slated for Tuesday, May 26 at Boise City Hall West, where interested providers can learn about eligibility.
"This is definitely a new way of doing business, but we think it's exciting," she said.
Lachiondo maintained what seemed to be an inexhaustible level of enthusiasm as she stood before group after group, pitching the ideas of H.E.L.P. and P.F.S.
"Honestly, we've never really had a good path forward on how to realistically get some of this done," she told BW. "But that's where my excitement comes from. This could be the biggest payoff."