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$176 million in rental aid one step closer to reaching Idaho residents in need

Idaho House of Representatives | EastIdahoNews.com file photo

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Nearly $176 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to renters unable to pay their housing costs is one step closer to making it in the hands of Idaho residents.

House members approved a bill to accept federal emergency rental assistance — used to cover rent, utility or energy costs — in a 59-8 vote Friday. The funding is part of nearly $900 million Idaho received from the federal emergency COVID-19 relief bill that was signed by former President Donald Trump in December.

Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, who sponsored the legislation, said House Bill 176 would provide some stability to Idaho’s struggling residents who currently can’t pay their rent or utilities.

“I think this is an opportunity to help some of our Idaho friends and neighbors that have been significantly impacted,” Amador said on the House floor. “Unfortunately this pandemic has particularly hit our lower income citizens harder than other groups, and they are facing a difficult path forward.”

The rental relief is one of several appropriations state legislators will need to approve this session of the nearly $900 million in federal aid. If Idaho chose to forgo all or part of the funding provided by the federal government, the dollars would be reallocated to other states.

WHO BENEFITS FROM THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY RENTAL ASSISTANCE?

The relief would be sent to the landlords, property owners and property managers, not to renters directly. Gov. Brad Little chose to contract with the Idaho Housing and Finance Association to administer the program, which would run through Dec. 31, 2021.

To qualify for the program, an Idaho resident would need to fall below 80% of the area median income. The rental cost would need to be 25% or more of the household’s monthly income. A household would also need to show proof of a COVID-19-related financial hardship and evidence of housing instability, such as a letter from a landlord.

Amador said an estimated 34,000 households are at risk of eviction, and tenants have fallen behind $73 million to $103 million on rental payments. Idaho utility providers have seen a 20% increase in past due bills since the pandemic’s start, Amador said.

The bill would distribute the money to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association as needed in increments of $10 million. It would also require that the association provide monthly updates to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and Legislative Services Office.

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, pointed out that cities with a population of over 200,000 were able to receive funding directly from the federal government. The housing authority that oversees Boise and Ada County has already received about $24 million in rental assistance.

But rural Idaho is “also struggling,” Nilsson Troy said.

“I just want to remind the body that it’s already happening in the state,” Nilsson Troy said. “We didn’t have to approve it.”

LEGISLATORS CRITICIZE GOVERNMENT FOR FEDERAL DEFICIT GROWTH

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, on the House floor blamed the government for the economic hardships. He said he would begrudgingly vote “for socialism” and criticized lawmakers for increasing the federal debt by trillions more dollars for COVID-19 relief.

He also questioned how long states will continue to provide “free” money.

“There’d be no reason for renters to work. There would be no reason for businesses to be open,” Barbieri said. “This is concerning, and yet we have no choice morally but to make sure that the government makes whole that which it has hurt.”

Charlie Shepherd, R-Riggins, said he also doesn’t want to create a large federal debt for his grandchildren. But he wants them to benefit from federal relief if they already pay those taxes, he said.

“If my grandkids are going to have to pay this bill no matter what, I would just assume they were paying for money spent in Idaho by Idahoans and not by Californians,” Shepherd said.

Amador said the Legislature has a duty to help Idaho residents who are suffering. He said he knows people who have died from COVID-19 and were the primary income earners in their families — who now struggle to pay basic expenses.

“Whether you want to claim that it was the exclusive fault of the government from preventing these people from working, or if you feel like there are direct impacts from COVID to people and their ability to earn dollars, I think it matters to both of those individuals,” Amador said on the House floor. “I think we have an obligation, irrespective of other concerns, that we support Idahoans during this really difficult time.”

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