Need to rent an affordable apartment in Boise? It will be harder than you think

It’s hard to miss the panic in Facebook posts, Craigslist ads, letters to the editor: I can’t find an apartment to save my life. Can you help me? Please?

Around the Treasure Valley, the story is the same. The vacancy rate for rental properties in Ada County is an anemic 2.8 per cent. The rate for so-called affordable units has dipped below 1 per cent — 0.88 percent, to be exact. Landlords are raising rents. Renters are scrambling.

“We certainly have seen occasions where rents have been pressured like this, but we’re getting to a point in the market where we’re seeing it as bad as we’ve ever seen it before,” said Gerald M. Hunter, president of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, who has worked in the region for nearly 30 years.

The reasons are manifold. The population is booming. Apartment construction halted during the Great Recession (zero units were built in all of Ada County in 2008) and is struggling to make up lost ground. The scorching home real estate market is shutting wannabe buyers out, consigning them to leases instead of prayed-for mortgages. Wages can’t keep pace with rising rents.

Just read the Facebook lament posted by Michelle Eis — who was born at St. Luke’s Hospital and lived a block from North Junior High until she was 17 — and you’ll get the picture.

“Recently some people who live in CHICAGO bought the duplex I’ve been living in for 12 years and decided to kick me out so they can gut and remodel it and rent it out for twice what they get now,” the 43-year-old wrote on May 25. “I’ve been looking for a new place for two months, and there is nowhere for me to go.”

It made her feel “no longer welcome, so to speak, in MY city,” she wrote.

Blissful ignorance, then knowledgeable anxiety

It also put her in a terrible bind.

Eis is a self-employed house cleaner who has relied on the federal Section 8 housing program to help her make rent for more than a decade. She is looking for new clients so she can make ends meet.

When her landlord handed her a 60-day lease-termination notice on Good Friday, the first thing that raced through her mind was, “This is my home. You’re kicking me out of my home.” But she didn’t panic. After all, she’d been out of the rental rat race for a very long time, and real estate ignorance is bliss.

“I did not think it would be difficult when I first started looking,” Eis said. “I did not take seriously how dire the situation is. Not only are there waiting lists on almost every apartment complex, many of them have closed their waiting lists and aren’t even accepting new people.”

Five weeks later, fear set in. She had ramped up her search to an “extreme effort” level, checking websites and affordable housing lists, trolling neighborhoods for “For Lease” signs, emailing and calling property managers.

She was moved out by Memorial Day. She had yet to find a place to live.

Nights in her Kia in a carport

The first weekend, she and her two cats house sat for Boni Hutchinson, “a very kind woman” with whom she barters cleaning services for massage therapy.

“When she came home,” Eis recounted, tearful, “I had nowhere to go. So she let me stay. Her landlord said I could stay for two weeks, and that was it. And so then my two weeks ended.”

She slept in her car for the first night, a Kia Forte that had lost a chunk of its front end to a hit-and-run driver during the awful winter of 2016. Then she met a man, Brad, online, and he insisted she stay with him. Several nights found her back in the Kia, parked in Brad’s carport, “because I just needed my own space.”

Her belongings were stored all over the Treasure Valley. Hutchinson kept her cats, Hunter, 12, and Luna, 2, along with some of Eis’ things. Luna has since disappeared. The furniture was in the Eagle garage of her oldest friend, Sarah Worthington. She put stuff in friend Noha Ebed’s garage. Her coats were with another friend. The Kia served as a mobile storage locker.

It made her feel “kind of drawn and quartered,” she said.

‘I will be in your office in 30 seconds’

Eis’ luck changed the last week in June. She and Brad were driving around the Boise Bench neighborhood between Liberty Park and Bishop Kelly High School, looking for possibilities. They had just turned off Douglas Street onto North Allumbaugh Street when Eis spotted a “For Lease” sign. As Brad pulled into the parking lot, Eis was dialing the rental office.

The property manager had bad news. The three-bedroom apartment had just been rented. It wouldn’t have worked out anyway, Eis told her, because her Section 8 housing voucher was only good for $740 a month, enough for a one-bedroom.

“She says, ‘Yeah, that would have been a one-bedroom, and I don’t have any of. Wait a minute! Somebody just canceled their $100 holding deposit. I do have a one-bedroom available’,” Eis recounted. “I said, ‘I am in your parking lot. I will be in your office in 30 seconds’.”

She rented the third-floor apartment sight unseen, and it’s been home for almost two weeks now. The place is a “quaint” 644 square feet. Rent is “$1 a square foot,” Eis laughs. Her portion is about $140 a month; the Section 8 voucher covers the rest.

“I got my coffee pot and my microwave over here first thing,” she said. “You’ve got to have the coffee pot.”

You’ve also got to stand up for yourself in a market like this one, she said on Facebook Messenger. Not enough people do, she said, and landlords “bank on the hopes that we won’t fight back for what is right!”

The affordable-apartment shortage

There are many ways of looking at the region’s desperate rental market.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition figures that 27 percent of Idaho’s renter households qualify as “extremely low income,” as Eis does. That means that their incomes are either at or below the federal poverty guideline or they make just 30 percent of the area’s median income.

In the Boise area, for example, the median household income is $64,300, according to the coalition. Thirty percent of that is $19,290. Affordable rent – which does not consume more than 30 percent of a household’s annual income — would be $482 a month (the $19,200 yearly income multiplied by 0.3 and then divided by 12). But fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city is $629. For a two-bedroom, it is $807.

The result statewide, according to the coalition? For every 100 extremely low income households, there are only 43 affordable and available homes. Which means that Idaho has a shortage of more than 29,000 units to house those struggling families.

Boise rents increased 1 percent from June to July and are up 3.6 percent over the past year, according to, a San Francisco-based online rental company. The median one-bedroom unit rents for $720, a two-bedroom for $930 — still below the $1,180 national average.

New apartments have been built in the past few years in the Lusk neighborhood near Boise State University, in Northwest Boise, in Meridian and elsewhere, but not enough to boost the vacancy rate as the population grows and house prices lock modest-income buyers out. The Idaho Apartment Association, which represents owners of rental units, estimates that Idaho will need to add 15,000 new apartment units by 2030 to keep up with demand.

‘ Rent eats first’ — food, health care suffer

The United Way’s ALICE Project looks at life for people who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed in 17 states, including Idaho. ALICE households earn more than the federal poverty level but not enough to cover the basic cost of living in their states.

In Idaho as a whole, according to the 2018 ALICE report, 40 percent of households have incomes that are either below the poverty level or that cannot cover the cost of living. That’s nearly 250,000 households that struggle each month to earn enough to live. Nearly 85,000 are in Ada and Canyon counties.

“We look at this as ‘rent eats first’ out of a household budget,” said Nora J. Carpenter, president and chief executive of the United Way of Treasure Valley. “If it goes up, then everything else becomes negotiable about what you give up: food, insurance, preventive medical care. There’s an enormous ripple effect beyond just being housed.”

James R. Hensley Sr. knows this firsthand. He’s 75, a retired restaurant manager who drives part-time for Enterprise Rent-A-Car so he can pay his bills.

Hensley came to Boise about five years ago, following his son, a Walgreens store manager. When he signed the lease in his current apartment in 2015, it was about $450 a month for the one-bedroom unit in a 40-year-old building light on amenities.

The first time his landlord raised his rent, he got a carpet cleaning out of the arrangement. The second and third times, Hensley said, his landlord did nothing to warrant the bump in price. This spring, he was given a month to either sign the new lease – at $670 a month – or find another place to live.

“My lease expired at the end of April, so I moved out,” Hensley said. “They just said, ‘Rents are going up all over the valley. Here’s your new rent.’ They did it because they can. I’ve never been in favor of government interference into private enterprise. But how many people like me, on Social Security, are being forced out?”

Hensley said he was able to move in with a friend. They split expenses. He figures it’s a permanent solution. Unless the rent goes up – again – beyond their ability to pay.

Oh, and after Hensley moved out because the rent had been raised to $670, the landlord upped the cost of his old apartment to $750 a month.

Landlords ‘want their properties to perform well’

Melissa Sharone, president of the Southwest Idaho chapter of the National Association of Residential Property Managers, said people need to understand that rental properties are investments for their owners.

“They want their properties to perform well,” said Sharone, who is also president of First Rate Property Management in Boise. “Property values are going up. Costs are going up, so is upkeep. It’s not necessarily that they’re upping rent just to pocket the money. Across the board expenses are going up.”

Sharone blames growth and Idaho’s low wages. “I feel bad,” she said. “The nice place to raise your family here is slowly going away. ... People are moving in who can afford double what those who are from here can afford.”

Officials with the Idaho Apartment Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Zoe Ann Olson, executive director of the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, says the region’s tight rental market is particularly tough on people like Hensley, seniors, those on fixed incomes, retirees who depend on Social Security or federal disability payments, college students, and families with children.

“It should be first come, first qualified, first served,” Olson said. But her agency has seen an increase in housing discrimination complaints, and she blames the tight market. “Right now, in Ada County and Boise, it’s super tough to be a renter, especially for people who are vulnerable.”

She has 3 jobs, and 2 roommates sharing the rent

Olson could be talking about Sammi Lowman, a 23-year-old artist and recent graduate of Boise State. Lowman holds three jobs, all “super part-time and flexible.” She works at the Women’s and Children’s Alliance thrift store. She’s a support aide for an autistic child in Meridian. She cleans houses and does yard work on the side.

She and her roommate paid $725 a month for small house off Broadway, a short bike ride from BSU. In the fall, their landlord said he was going to turn their current home into a duplex and raise the rent on their unit to $900 once construction finished.

“Then this spring we met with him again to discuss our plans,” Lowman recounted. “We were both graduating. He said the rent would actually be $990 starting in July. … He said, if you look at Zillow, the property values are going up, and all the other landlords were doing it, and he had the right.”

They had less than two months to find a new home. Rental application fees were $40 or $50 per person. One landlord told Lowman he had hundreds of emails inquiring about his listings, and he never looked at more than a few of them.

They couldn’t find anything near the $362.50 each they were paying monthly. They increased their budget to $400 each. Then $450. Then they found a third roommate, a 17-year-old who needed his father to cosign a lease.

“There was a lot of discrimination going on,” Lowman said. “My roommate and I are both gay. Several times after we talked to a landlord, it was ‘Oops, we found someone else.’ It was very frustrating. We were at a disadvantage because of our perceived identities.”

They finally found an old, 1950s-style house, two bedrooms with a finished basement where a third roommate lives. It was listed at $1,200 a month. But when they were about to meet with the landlord to sign the lease, she called with a surprise.

“It was now $1,350 a month,” Lowman said. “The landlord realized it was way under market, so she changed it.”

They signed anyway.

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga