BOISE — When Dom Gallegos and his teenage son were facing the prospect of another rent increase on their two-bedroom apartment, he knew he needed to act.
When they moved to the Gekeler Farms Boise apartments in 2013, rent was a manageable $875 per month for Gallegos, who sells manufactured homes for a living. When he moved out last month to rent a house with his girlfriend, he had been paying $1,200, with the prospect of yet another increase on the horizon.
“There had been zero upgrades,” he said. “I’m not looking for upgrades, but if I’m paying more for the same space, that doesn’t seem right.”
Renting an apartment in Boise used to be a cheap way to find a place to live, but not anymore. Across the city, booming property values and a housing shortage caused by an influx of new residents moving to the Treasure Valley is driving up rents, leaving those like Gallegos in search of affordable options with fewer and fewer places to turn.
According to rentcafe.com, the average rent for an apartment in Boise is roughly $1,104 a month, an increase of 9% since last year. This still puts Boise below the national average of $1,396 per month, but Idaho’s average wages lag behind all but one state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Boise apartments have become more expensive, and they have also become more numerous. Between 2008 and 2018, 5,202 multifamily units were built in Boise, according to regional planning organization Compass. This is roughly half of all of the multifamily units built in Ada County during the same time period.
Despite the influx of denser housing construction, Boise officials estimate the city will need to 20,000 more housing units over the next two decades to keep pace with population growth.
This translates to roughly 1,000 new units per year, which developers have only exceeded in 2014 with 1,573 constructed.
Gallegos’ search for a place he could afford was not easy. The single father was worried about moving his son out of the Timberline High School District during his senior year, so he couldn’t stray outside of increasingly pricey southeast Boise. Gallegos considered finding a roommate to cut costs, but he worried about bringing a stranger into their home.
Luckily for Gallegos, he was able to find a three-bedroom rental house in the school district for $1,600 that meets his budget because he will be able to split finances with his girlfriend. Their search involved fruitlessly calling dozens of listings and competing with people moving in from out of state who were renting houses sight unseen.
Getting into the house wasn’t cheap either. Between paying the deposit and breaking the lease with Gekeler Farms, Gallegos completely wiped out his savings to make the move. But, he said it was worth it to snag such a good deal in Boise’s increasingly brutal rental market.
“Back in the 2005 era, I could just drive around neighborhoods and take down numbers for five, six, seven, eight numbers of houses for rent,” he said. “Not anymore.”
Renting an apartment has become increasingly unaffordable across the country, not just in Boise. According to a study called “Out of Reach” by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an Idaho worker would have to make just over $15 an hour to be able to afford the average two-bedroom apartment. The same study found the average Idaho renter makes $12 an hour.
The outcome is even dimmer for Idaho’s minimum wage workers, who make the federal minimum of $7.25. A worker making minimum wage would have to put in 92 hours a week at work to afford the average two-bedroom apartment, the study found.
For those who have found affordable places to live, the fear of an increase or being evicted in exchange for a short-term rental is real.
Brittany O’Meara, who lives in the Vista neighborhood, is glad to have a one-bedroom she shares with her significant other for $800 that accepts pets, but she worries they could be priced out or asked to leave at any time.
O’Meara just finished her graduate degree at Boise State University, but she has a disability and can’t work full time. In her 12-unit complex, half of the units have been converted into Airbnbs that turn a higher profit for the landlord. In order to be able to stay, O’Meara and her partner have tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.
“(The landlord) told us that he really likes us and we’re the only people who pay our rent on time, so we don’t ask for repairs because we don’t want him to think of us as bothersome,” she said. “We just fly under the radar and pay our rent on time every month so we don’t cross him the wrong way or get asked to leave, because we’re on a month-to-month and we’re afraid to ask for our lease to be renewed in case there’s an increase.”
Because of their tight budget and pets, which make it harder to find a place, O’Meara said they have no idea what they will do if they have to move.
“(The housing issue) is putting people in really tough places of decision making, and it’s pretty messed up, especially when wages are so low and there’s no health care and now we’re being priced out of housing,” she said. “It couldn’t be any worse for the working class people in Idaho right now.”
Boise is still working out the details for its plan to help stanch the crisis. The city is working toward establishing an affordable housing land trust, which would leverage city-owned property to build affordable housing the private sector wouldn’t otherwise invest in. The city also took steps to make accessory dwelling units, or “mother-in-law suites,” allowed in more places to increase density and add affordable options.
City officials are developing an incentive program to entice developers to build affordable housing and want to tweak zoning to allow slightly denser developments in single-family-zoned areas. Mayor Dave Bieter and city staff have said the key to easing the crisis is to increase housing supply as much as possible, which should ease skyrocketing prices.
Gallegos said as a salesman in the housing industry, he understands the need for property owners to make a profit, but he feels the pain of renters struggling to make it.
“I know there’s a push from developers to get the most money they can, but there’s also a push from renters that there needs to be something in place to help renters,” he said. “I’d like to see more of some sort of incentive that entices developers to create some good communities for low-income renters or elderly folks. I think that would be a win for both sides.”