Housing Op-Ed

Guest opinion: Legislators seeking to ‘compound’ housing issues

By ALI RABE.     Jan 30, 2022

Rather than mitigate Idaho’s growing housing crisis, state lawmakers are pushing through legislation that seeks to compound it further and strip away local control.

If passed, House Bill 442 would prevent cities from regulating fees or deposits for residential rental properties, giving landlords total power and increasing the likelihood of abusive practices. As it’s written, the bill would trump the city of Boise’s application fee ordinance, allowing landlords across the state to collect application fees from an unlimited number of applicants, charging whatever they want, without ever having to prove a unit is even available.

This type of unethical behavior is what prompted Boise officials to act, and application fees were capped at $30. Limiting rental fees is simple consumer protection.

In Ada County, 30% of residents are renters. A similar percentage also live paycheck to paycheck, as housing costs rise and incomes remain stagnant.

There are also other landlords who are more difficult to work with. Many of these are large, investor-owned companies with no presence in Idaho. With a less than 1% vacancy rate in the Treasure Valley, they have all of the bargaining power in a market that is completely unregulated. A number of states require property management companies to register and comply with basic best practices, but Idaho removed that requirement in 2017.

Right now, if tenants secure a rental, they have to take it. If their landlord violates the lease, they must try to work it out or attempt to move to a new place, which they’re unlikely to find.

I’ve heard countless stories on the ridiculous application of fees when working with our Jesse Tree clients, like:

• A tenant in eviction court who owed over $3,000 in late fees. They couldn’t pay their rent and were charged $100 every day they were late. The rent payments they made were only applied to fees.

• A tenant in eviction court who received a 30-day notice to vacate. They paid $600 in application fees. Unfortunately, they did not receive a response back from any places and were unable to move out at the end of the 30 days. Their landlord took them to court.

• A tenant who was charged $300 for a praying mantis their kid was keeping in a plastic terrarium in preparation for a science fair. The landlord claimed this was a “pet fee.” We argued the praying mantis was not a pet, but the landlord refused to waive the fee.

Providing tenants with basic protections is a way to create a more even playing field. This is why I introduced a bill last session that required rental fees to be reasonable and enumerated in any lease agreement, so both parties know what they are getting into. Despite receiving bipartisan support and input from stakeholders, it narrowly died in the House.

Excessive fees don’t solve any of our problems. Nickel-and-diming folks who are already struggling ultimately hurts all of us. Less affordable housing leads to more landlord and tenant disputes about rent getting paid on time, as well as increases in eviction, homelessness, and of course, fees.

Idaho’s housing crisis isn’t just isolated to one area—it’s a statewide problem. We must continue to work together with landlords and property managers to find sensible solutions that keep our neighbors housed. Passing short-sided policies like HB442 only does harm.

Ali Rabe is executive director of Jesse Tree, a Boise-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing homelessness and eviction in the Treasure Valley.

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