For eight years, Charles “Chuck” Bunch has lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood west of the Idaho Center in Nampa.
The retired clinical therapist, 67, lives quietly with three cats, paying his rent and other bills from his monthly Social Security check and from about $350 he earned monthly by selling decorated rocks and other items at craft fairs.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck in mid-March, Bunch’s supplemental income dried up as public gatherings were canceled. Like a lot of people who were laid off from their jobs or had their hours cut, Bunch found it harder to stay afloat.
His landlord, HomeRiver Group of Meridian, cut his $1,000 rent by $400 for two months this summer, he said. But then the company declined to renew his lease, which expired in July. Home River initially ordered Bunch to vacate his apartment on North Profit Circle by Oct. 2, but later gave him until Oct. 31.
“It’s kind of a back-door eviction,” Bunch said in an interview. “They cancel the lease and get rid of people they don’t want here.”
On Monday and Tuesday, the Idaho Statesman left a series of phone calls and an email directed to three HomeRiver managers asking to speak to someone at the company about Bunch. Late Tuesday afternoon, Danny Harlow, a HomeRiver vice president, emailed the Statesman to say the situation has been resolved.
“We have been in contact with Mr. Bunch and the property owner and both have agreed on a plan moving forward that will allow Mr. Bunch to stay in his current residence,” Harlow said.
Even so, Bunch’s struggle illustrates a potential problem for some renters with the Sept. 4 order from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that prohibits residential evictions through the end of the year for tenants short on cash. It is this: In lieu of eviction, landlords can decide not to renew tenants’ leases, said Ali Rabe, the executive director of Jesse Tree of Idaho.
Jesse Tree is a Boise nonprofit that works with people to help avoid homelessness through rental assistance and negotiating with landlords
“We’ve also seen landlords move leases to month-to-month agreements,” Rabe said in an email.
It’s unclear how many other Idaho renters are being displaced because of the pandemic. Scott Graf, a spokesperson for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, said his office has not heard from others in Bunch’s predicament.
“We have, though, heard from tenants who say they’re having a difficult time making rent payments based on COVID-related financial problems like unemployment,” Graf said by email. “In those situations, we refer those constituents to community resources like Jesse Tree.”
Bunch said he has been a good tenant and paid his rent on time until the pandemic. With the two-month break from his landlord and rental assistance in August from, he has been scraping by.
He asked to remain in his apartment until the end of the year, when he planned to move into a low-income senior housing complex in Caldwell. He said he would leave now, but he has nowhere to go until the senior housing becomes available. He figured his odds of finding a temporary home were slim.
“What kind of apartment would take a person for five months?” he asked. “How would I pay hundreds of dollars in deposits and fees?”
On Tuesday, Bunch filed a document that may have ensured he’s able to remain in his apartment. It was based on the CDC order. Tenants must sign a declaration attesting they can’t pay their entire rent and have exhausted efforts to obtain government assistance and submit the form to their landlord.
That order was based upon findings that evictions could hamper efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While it temporarily prohibits evictions, it does not provide rent relief, and tenants must still pay what they owe eventually.
Some landlords are fighting the moratorium. At least 26 lawsuits challenging it have been filed nationwide, the Associated Press reported. The landlords who sued say the national eviction moratorium unfairly strains their finances and violates their property rights.
In Memphis, Tennessee, seven landlords who together manage or own more than 5,000 rental units sued this month, accusing President Donald Trump and other federal officials of unconstitutionally violating their due process protections and wrongly preempting state laws. The National Apartment Association joined a separate federal lawsuit this month in Georgia against the CDC. Another legal battle has been filed in Ohio.
No such lawsuits have been reported in Idaho. But tenant stress has climbed during the pandemic.Late last month, Jesse Tree reported 67 eviction hearings were taking place throughout the state, the highest number since mid-March, when the pandemic struck Idaho.
Calls to the Boise-based Intermountain Fair Housing Council have doubled since March, Zoe Ann Olson, the council’s executive director, said by phone. The nonprofit, which is funded through grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, works to ensure renters and home buyers do not face discrimination.
“We’ve been extremely busy with trying to connect people to rental resources, address housing discrimination and try to prevent evictions,” Olson said.
The council has worked to help a couple of senior citizens who have lived in their rentals for a long time but are facing steep rent increases.
“It’s really hard on seniors right now, because they certainly can’t be homeless or in close quarters with anybody, because it’s just a recipe for disaster for their help,” Olson said.
HELP VIA MEDIATION, MONEY
The housing council tries to engage landlords in mediation to see if any issues can be resolved to prevent a tenant from being forced out. Jesse Tree offers the same service, and both agencies offered assistance to Bunch.
“We’d certainly want to talk to the housing provider and try to help this individual keep his housing,” Olson said before the landlord reported an agreement with Bunch.
Some government money is available. For tenants unable to pay their rent or utilities, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association has paid out only a fraction of the $15 million it received from federal coronavirus-relief money sent to the state.
Through Monday, the program had paid out $5.8 million to 7,221 Idaho residents with financial hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic, spokesperson Ben Cushman said by email.
The application is available online, and landlords can apply on behalf of their tenants, Cushman said.
‘DISCARDING PEOPLE THAT ARE VULNERABLE’
Bunch’s apartment is near the new Amazon fulfillment warehouse scheduled to open later this year and close to Saint Alphonsus Medical Center — Nampa. He believes employees of those businesses may be more desired as tenants than retirees on a fixed income.
“They’re discarding some people that are more vulnerable that could be a risk financially down the road for them,” Bunch said before the agreement. “So it’s out with the old and in with the new than can pay a little bit better.”
Bunch said he hoped HomeRiver, his landlord, would not retaliate against him for speaking out. He said he’s not afraid.
“It’s part of my philosophy about life,” he said. “You face your fears. You tell your story. And sometimes that’s about all you can do.”
The Statesman was unable to reach Bunch again after receiving Harlow’s email.
Harlow, the HomeRiver vice president, said, “We understand the current challenges caused by the pandemic, the restrictions on evictions, and the struggles some tenants are facing and we are very willing to work out reasonable solutions.”