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Coalition of Idaho Policy Advocates Wins Support for Renters at the State Level

Kendra Knighten remembers years ago when housing policy was not considered a state issue. Constituents were told they should contact their local or federal elected officials about housing assistance, supply, or crisis intervention. 

Fast forward to today and Knighten is a leading policy advocate for housing and budget issues in Idaho, where she is the director of policy and research at Idaho Voices for Children. And state-level housing advancement are front and center. 

Federal Opportunities Spark State Conversations  

The federal CARES Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, provided much-needed funding to support housing needs for struggling Idahoans. Deciding how to best utilize these funds gave housing policy experts and advocates the opportunity to begin having conversations with state lawmakers about the issue. There was a great need for education–to explain the challenges faced by Idaho families, including how drastically the rental market was changing. 

Knighten and others in the field began collecting data to inform local lawmakers about the housing affordability issue and its effects on Idaho families. They shared how Idaho wages had not kept up with rents and mortgages, how there were not enough affordable homes available, and how current policies were hurting communities of color.  

Housing’s Direct Link to the Health and Wellbeing of Young Children 

Why does Idaho Voices for Children pursue affordable, stable housing as a children’s issue?

Knighten explains that a majority of Idaho renters are families with children, particularly single mothers with children. These families are at a higher risk of evictions. Additionally, when families are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, families struggle to afford basic necessities. At this point, many families experience food instability and buy food that is less nutritious. They may also skip medical appointments and experience other things that could have significant impacts on young children for the rest of their lives.  

“Ensuring folks have access to affordable homes and have enough left over to afford their basic necessities is incredibly important in ensuring that all of these children have the opportunity to thrive,” Knighten says.  

Building a Multi-Sector Coalition 

It was important to Knighten and those in the economic policy field to show the wide-ranging impact of housing affordability issues. 

“It didn’t make sense anymore for housing policy decisions to only be discussed by housing policy experts,” explains Knighten. “Housing impacts every part of a person’s life and we realized we need to bring healthcare partners, education partners, disability rights partners, domestic violence partners, and others to the same table to talk about what the needs are and which policies could start to address those issues.” 

These partners built a multi-sector coalition representing different industries from across Idaho. They showed the interconnectivity of housing policies, emphasizing the link between high opportunity neighborhoods and economic mobility, especially for children.  

The coalition prioritized telling the stories of housing policy from the perspectives of the partner organizations, showing work happening on the ground throughout the state for homelessness prevention, international rescue, food security, and more.  

An Emphasis on Consumer Protections

Framing the issue as consumer protection has been a good strategy for Idaho advocates. “Renters in Idaho don’t have consumer protections,” Knighten says. “They are left to lease agreements, and over the years we’ve seen the power dynamic shift away from renters. This has resulted in some bad practices.” 

Coming at the conversation from the perspective of consumer protection (over renter protection) has been very helpful. Especially in a conservative-leaning state, beginning conversations with shared values and experiences–having to manage household budgets and make tough choices–seems to resonate with state lawmakers and staff. Knighten encourages advocates working on housing issues to help lawmakers visualize an average family’s budget and how big those housing costs are. She emphasizes the importance of uplifting voices of impacted individuals. 

She recalls a state committee hearing in which one case manager shared a story about one family that had an issue related to fees, and how he flipped several members of the committee with his testimony about that family. “Lifting up the stories of impacted individuals can be very powerful when you’re talking to lawmakers,” Knighten says.  

Finding Success and Staying Mission-Focused for the Future  

Last year, the Idaho State Legislature passed Senate Bill 1039, requiring any fees imposed on tenants to be reasonable and enumerated in the lease agreement. The bill promotes greater transparency overall and seeks to address predatory leasing practices.  

On April 3, 2024, Governor Little signed Senate Bill 1327, an eviction shielding bill, into law. The law would require that if an eviction finding has been dismissed, it will be removed from public viewing after three years, allowing Idahoans to have a fresh start with pursuing affordable housing.  

These policy wins represent only the beginning for the work of the coalition, and Knighten says Idaho Voices for Children and its partners will continue to work on housing issues. They plan to follow their mission to promote policies that ensure every Idahoan has access to an affordable home. 

“Housing policies need to be addressed holistically,” says Knighten. “Our policy priorities will continue to focus on supply, assistance, and crisis intervention.” 

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