Though unemployment numbers have skyrocketed in Idaho and the Wood River Valley due to COVID-19, the Blaine County Housing Authority says it hasn’t seen an increase in people reaching out for help paying their rent or mortgage—but that could change in the coming months.

More than 2,000 workers in Blaine County filed for unemployment insurance benefits since the coronavirus pandemic hit the Wood River Valley mid-March. While local food banks have experienced an unprecedented demand, the Housing Authority’s phone lines have been largely quiet, BCHA Executive Director Nathan Harvill said.

He’s not sure how long that will last. Though some businesses may start to reopen in the weeks ahead, the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the Wood River Valley’s economy could lead to housing troubles for some down the road.

“Probably as the summer goes on and we see the effects of the stalled-out economy, we’re going to get more of those phone calls,” Harvill said.

Gov. Brad Little has rolled out a plan to reopen most Idaho businesses over the course of May and June, provided that the state sees a continued decrease in new COVID-19 cases. But in Blaine County, where much of the economy is driven by tourism, local economic experts say some businesses and workers are likely in for months, if not years, of struggle.

“There’s no question that we’re in for an extended period of people getting less hours, lower wages, and people struggling to make ends meet,” Harry Griffith, executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development, told listeners in a virtual town hall meeting two weeks ago.

Last year, the Housing Authority set up a 501(c)(3) to collect donations; those funds, which currently amount to about $5,000, are meant to assist people struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. The organization can provide recipients with up to $500 per payment.

Despite the spiking unemployment numbers since March, those funds have gone untouched in the pandemic, Harvill said.

“We haven’t had that high demand on our end,” he said.

Some landlords affiliated with the BCHA have offered to work with tenants on a case-by-case basis who are unable to pay rent due to COVID-19, Harvill said, though he said he doesn’t know of any landlords with a blanket policy to reduce or cancel rent.

A few factors could be contributing for the relatively low demand for help with housing costs so far, Harvill speculated. The pandemic hit Idaho in the middle of March, after most rent payments had likely already been submitted for that month. Some seasonal workers may have left the area, as usual, after the end of the ski season. Several federal emergency programs have provided laid-off workers with additional funds on top of state unemployment benefits in the weeks since, including $1,200 stimulus checks. And the Blaine County court system has been largely frozen during the COVID-19 outbreak, meaning that eviction proceedings have been put on hold.

But as local businesses ease into what would under normal circumstances be a busy summer season, the future impact of the virus on housing in Blaine County remains to be seen.

“As we go forward,” Harvill said, “it’s kind of a big unknown.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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