Stashed in some plastic containers under a tarp in Stephanie Rose’s backyard was a desperate plea for help that many renters are facing in Idaho Falls.
Rose found a series of notes detailing how a family had been evicted from their rental for complaining to the landlord about bed bugs. It’s this fear of retaliation, this fear of eviction, that affects many low-income people and stymies rental condition improvements.
The rental issues in Idaho Falls mostly center around low- to middle-income people who can’t always afford legal help, or have resources to fight a wrongful eviction.
The notes Rose found detail how the landlord threw out the renters’ couch and bed before evicting them. Rose doesn’t know what happened to the people or where they are now, but she still holds onto their pleas for help.
“When you have desperate people, or people who are just exhausted from working multiple jobs and taking care of kids, they’re not going to complain because the first time they complain they get evicted,” Rose said.
Rose owns four properties in the numbered street and focuses on revitalizing the properties and the neighborhood. She’s lived in the area since 1984, and wants to see it improve, even though more landlords she deems “slum lords” keep buying run-down properties and renting it without any improvements.
Walking along the cracked sidewalks of the neighborhood, Rose points out different rental properties that have couches and chairs sitting on the overgrown lawns. She details how the landlords don’t take care of the properties and neglect the tenants’ safety.
One property a few streets over from her rentals was condemned after a fire, but not because of the flames. The building wasn’t up to code, and when firefighters went to investigate the violations were so astounding condemnation was imminent.
Rose also recalled a man she used to know who lived across the street from her in a dilapidated rental. The man was an immigrant and a hard-working dishwasher. He used to ask to borrow their lawn mower to take care of the yard because his landlord wouldn’t.
“You don’t want to live in a dump, and you shouldn’t have to,” Rose said.
These are just some of the stories Rose detailed highlighting what low-income renters have to deal with. The stories certainly aren’t isolated instances in Idaho Falls.
Renters do have some rights and enforcement actions they can take against bad landlords, but are often afraid of retaliation.
“They’re abusing the neighborhood, they’re abusing their tenants,” Rose said of some landlords.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office has a guide for landlords and tenants that is available on its website. If there is an issue with the landlord maintaining the property, tenants can write a letter to their landlord detailing the problem.
The landlord then has three days to address the problem. If they refuse to, the tenant can sue the landlord to fix the problem and for any damages caused by it. However, most renters aren’t comfortable taking this enforcement action.
Idaho Falls City Councilman John Radford is also familiar with the desperate rental situation in Idaho Falls. At a City Council work session, Radford recalled how he heard a story of a renter in Idaho Falls who had open sewage in their apartment and struggled to get their landlord to fix it.
“I think the other thing we need to realize that we’re becoming a city that’s becoming a size where we need to be aware of some of these issues,” Radford said.
Even with some of the rental protections in place, Radford said landlords have a big advantage.
Idaho Falls’ growth has led to a rental shortage. Giving renters fewer options when searching for clean, safe and affordable housing.
Jared Duncan, Director of Operations at the HomeRiver Group Idaho Falls, said the company has a vacancy rate of 0.5 percent. Two weeks ago, the property management company had only five vacant units with two to four applicants for each unit. The company has close to a thousand properties.
“The rental market has gotten stronger over the course of the last few years, rental rates are going up because of the amount of demand,” Duncan said.
The average two bedroom apartment is renting for about $600 a month, plus utilities, Duncan said. This is expensive for an area like Idaho Falls, but these prices are cheap in comparison to some of the corporate apartment complexes in town charging $700 to $900 for a one bedroom apartment.
He said one of the perks of renting through a property management company is that they make sure the properties are well-maintained and ensure the quality of life for the renters. If renters can afford it, the companies add a layer of protection for the tenants and the landlords.
The city of Idaho Falls can’t do too much to intervene in landlord-tenant issues because it cannot overstep its bounds.
“When you start getting involved with tenants rights and protections, you’re getting into fair housing issues,” Community Development Services Director Brad Cramer said. The city can’t get involved because this is a federal issue and it would be outside of its legal authority.
However, the city can enforce property maintenance codes and make sure the tenant isn’t living in an unsafe environment. Cramer said many renters are reluctant to contact the city because they’re afraid of retaliation and eviction.
The city can also make sure affordable housing isn’t zoned out. This can be done by zoning in high density residential areas that would create affordable housing available for every socioeconomic level, Cramer said.
“People need a place to live, regardless where they’ve been in life, people need a place to live,” Cramer said.
For Idaho Falls’ rental situation to improve, there needs to be more protections for renters against retaliatory eviction, Radford said. In Idaho, retaliatory evictions are illegal and evictions usually happen when a tenant breaks their lease — not complain, according to the Attorney General Landlord and Tenant Manual.
Idaho Falls doesn’t have a local housing authority that is tasked to handle such issues, Cramer said.
Rose said code enforcement has improved recently, but it’s a game of playing catch-up. There are so many violations backlogged that it will take a while to see lasting differences.
Radford said there should be guidelines to protect renters from exorbitant housing prices. He said the vast majority of landlords do a good job, but there are bad players renters need protection from.
And there needs to be recourse for the renters and more affordable housing, Radford said.
“There’s also a really legitimate need for affordable, clean nice housing for lower to middle income people,” Rose said.
Without proper protected recourse for renters and affordable housing, renters will continue to struggle in Idaho Falls.
Reporter Isabella Alves can be reached at 208-542-6711 or follow her on Twitter @IsabellaAlves96