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House approves emergency rental help for Idaho residents

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The House on Friday approved $175 million in emergency rental assistance as people struggle to pay rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers voted 59-8 to approve the money that also requires approval from the Senate, plus Republican Gov. Brad Little's signature.

The money is part of the nearly $900 million the state received under then-President Donald Trump's coronavirus rescue bill signed into law in December.

President Joe Biden last month extended a nationwide eviction ban through the end of March. That puts the financial strain on property owners. Money from Idaho's program will go to property owners, not renters.

The rent assistance money is part of a plan to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by preventing people from falling into homelessness.

Republican Rep. Paul Amador said state officials estimate that 10% of adult renters have fallen behind, and that 34,000 households are at risk of eviction. He said the amount of rent that hasn't been paid is between $73 million and $103 million.

Idaho unemployment spiked from about 3% to nearly 12% last March when COVID-19 entered the state, and Little ordered a temporary shutdown as patients overwhelmed some hospitals and health care workers became ill. Unemployment has since rebounded but not to pre-pandemic levels.

Amador addressed concerns from lawmakers about spending federal money and increasing the federal debt, including from some who considered the problem caused by the government and not the pandemic.

"Whether you want to claim that it was the exclusive fault of the government from preventing these people from working, or if you feel like there are direct impacts from COVID to people and their ability to earn dollars - I think it matters to both of those individuals," he said. "I certainly know there are people in Idaho that have perished from COVID-19 that were breadwinners for their families, and all of a sudden those individuals are struggling to pay everyday expenses."

Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri, a fiscally conservative lawmaker who often opposes spending requests, blamed the government for the economic shutdown, but ended up voting to approve the money.

"I'm struggling with this. I don't know that I want to continue to vote for socialism and yet these people are hurting. Businesses are hurting. It's a real problem," he said, wondering aloud whether additional federal spending will continue. "This is concerning, and yet we have no choice, morally, but to make sure that the government makes whole that which it has hurt."

The $900 million is the second round of coronavirus rescue money the state received, following $1.25 billion early last year.

Idaho state lawmakers in a power struggle with Little said they should have been called back into session last year to distribute the $1.25 billion.

But now, the part-time, Republican-dominated Legislature is back in session and has the task of approving the $900 million.

Six weeks into the legislative session, the emergency rental assistance is the first significant action to clear either the House or Senate despite urgent calls from groups saying it is needed immediately.

The Idaho Housing and Finance Association would administer the emergency rental assistance money. The deadline to spend the federal money is Dec. 31.

Article Topic Follows: Idaho Politics

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