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Valley renters caught in a squeeze: Rising rents, dwindling apartment supply

Sharrie Armfield: The struggle to find an affordable apartment

Boisean Sharrie Armfield has spent three months trying to find an apartment for less than $900 in the Treasure Valley that would accept her housing voucher.
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Boisean Sharrie Armfield has spent three months trying to find an apartment for less than $900 in the Treasure Valley that would accept her housing voucher.

Finding a vacant apartment or house is hard enough in the tight Treasure Valley rental market for average earners, let alone for low-income apartment hunters like Sharrie Armfield.

The Boisean and single mother of two teenagers suffers from fibromyalgia, a painful nerve condition. The fact that some listings seemed like scams and that most landlords have been unresponsive has complicated matters.

“Most haven’t answered their phones or returned my messages,” Armfield said. “I’m very frustrated and very disappointed.”

Armfield said she started hunting for apartments in February after her roommate arrangements with her child’s father became untenable. Her financial situation — she’s disabled and sometimes forced by pain to use her wheelchair for days at a time — limited her search to three-bedroom units renting for less than $900 a month and accepting Section 8 housing vouchers, a federal housing subsidy. She has searched across Ada County, inquiring on around 20 units.

She’s waited about a month to hear from one promising possibility, an apartment complex in Kuna that is processing her application. She said she can’t afford to pay fees to apply to several units simultaneously.

“In my life, that $25 to $30 is hard to come up with,” she said.

Armfield isn’t the only apartment hunter frustrated by the rental market.

The vacancy rate in the Treasure Valley has hovered between 2 and 3.5 percent for four years, according to Mountain States Appraisals in Boise. Gerald Hunter, president and executive director of Idaho Housing and Finance Association, said landlords are filling vacant units as quickly as they can prepare them after previous renters move.

The market is even tighter for units renting for less than $750. The IHFA runs a rentals listing website, housingidaho.com, with 13,000 rental units in the Treasure Valley, most of which are at the affordable end of the market. Those units have a vacancy rate of less than 1 percent, Hunter said.

Rising rental costs have outstripped wage gains in Idaho, causing more renters to spend more of their earnings on housing, Hunter said. That’s hit the poorest Idahoans hardest. Housing professionals consider anybody spending more than 30 percent of their monthly income to be “housing burdened,” and those spending more than half their income to be “severely burdened.” Hunter said 78 percent of Idaho households earning half or less of the state’s median household income are burdened or severely burdened.

“Every time we see rents go up, there are more people who will fall into that cost-burdened category.” he said.

Meanwhile, the average rent in the Treasure Valley increased 5.3 percent in 2016, according to ApartmentList.com. The median rent in Ada County was $947 in 2015, a 28 percent increase from the recession-low of $751 in 2010.

POOREST HIT HARDEST

The Treasure Valley’s poorest and most disadvantaged are struggling the most to find and pay for rentals, said Deanna Watson, executive director for Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority. Watson’s office issues Section 8 housing vouchers to about 2,000 families in Ada County that earn 30 percent or less of the county median household income, or around $49,000 for a family of two and $64,000 for a family of four.

Section 8 vouchers are issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the housing authority and the IHFA.

The housing authority had so many people that it suspended its voucher waiting list at around 5,500 families. Those already on the list receive notice when a voucher becomes available, but the waits can still be years.

The vouchers pay for whatever share of rent the tenants can’t afford, according to a formula taking income into account. For example, if a family can afford to pay $500 per month on a $900 rent, the voucher will cover the remaining $400. Watson said her office has enough vouchers for only about 20 percent of Ada County residents poor enough to qualify.

When the economy slumps and vacancy rates climb, landlords like renters with Section 8 vouchers because that helps guarantee the rent will be paid, Watson said. But in today’s low-vacancy market, landlords see the extra time needed to process Section 8 voucher applications as lost money. Voucher deals also require an inspector to sign off on the unit, exposing landlords to orders to pay for fixes. Landlords of nonsubsidized rentals have no obligation to cap rent rates or accept vouchers.

As a result, a steady stream of Valley landlords have stopped accepting housing vouchers, Watson said, leaving Ada County with too few vouchers for its low-income population and too few landlords willing to accept them.

“If a landlord has one applicant with a voucher, they think, ‘Why would I do all of that when I have nine tenants with money in their pockets?’ ” she said.

HELP ON THE WAY?

Most of the apartments built since the Great Recession are priced in the upper end of the market. That’s especially true of Downtown Boise, where most apartments recently finished or in planning stages rent for more than $1,200 per month.

Developers can’t turn a profit on more affordably priced rentals, Hunter said. The rising costs for land, permits, labor and materials have pushed developers into the high-end market, he said, and the ease of filling open units hasn’t dissuaded them.

“People would like to build in the affordable market, but without some sort of subsidy, it’s just not economically feasible,” Hunter said.

The IHFA offers one program that tries to encourage builders to create lower-cost rentals. It grants $4 million annually in federal tax credits for developers to build affordable rentals. “Affordable” means apartments for tenants who earns half or less of the area median household income.

Hunter said 14 affordable apartment complexes containing 682 units in the Treasure Valley will be opening to renters in the next 18 months, which will inject some inventory into a desperate market. Some of those units are subsidized by the housing credit, he said. But the new units will make only a small dent, he said.

“Those units will certainly help, but it won’t, by itself, change the vacancy levels,” Hunter said. “In today’s Treasure Valley market, 600, 700 units can be absorbed pretty quickly.”

WHAT IS REALLY AFFORDABLE?

At least one project is coming to Downtown intended to offer subsidized housing that workers can afford. But don’t expect it to offer cheap rents.

The Capitol City Development Corporation, Boise’s redevelopment agency, selected developer Dean Pape to build a 34-unit apartment building at 503 Ash St. on the condition that it would qualify as workforce housing. “Workforce housing” means its tenants must earn between 80 percent and 140 percent of the area median income, far too much for service or retail employees who would like to live closer to their Downtown jobs.

By that criteria, a qualifying couple earn between $39,000 and $70,000 per year using 2015 data for a two-person household. That would place the rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $900 or more.

That’s a long way from affordable for many Ada County residents, Hunter said. But considering Downtown apartments often rent for hundreds more, the workforce housing project will fill a niche currently missing Downtown, he said.

“That can be helpful for people who have good jobs, but their income isn’t high enough (for most rentals) in the city core,” Hunter said.

Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @ZachKyleNews

Heavy burden

More renters are either “housing burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income for housing, or “severely burdened,” meaning they pay more than half of their income.

Share of renters experiencing “housing burden” in Ada and Canyon counties

Moderately burdened

Severely burdened

Ada

Canyon

Ada

Canyon

2005

27.6%

30.3%

19.8%

31.5%

2006

22.8%

18.8%

18.0%

17.7%

2007

23.4%

19.8%

20.4%

23.7%

2008

26.5%

27.0%

16.3%

17.6%

2009

27.8%

30.3%

22.1%

22.4%

2010

27.5%

32.5%

25.5%

28.1%

2011

22.2%

22.3%

27.7%

26.6%

2012

24.3%

22.7%

25.3%

27.1%

2013

28.0%

27.0%

21.0%

23.2%

2014

22.0%

25.1%

23.8%

19.5%

2015

25.6%

29.9%

24.9%

18.7%

Source: ApartmentList.com

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