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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Brittany O’Meara: Want to help keep Idaho families housed? Try a state tax credit for working families.

Brittany O'Meara

By Brittany O’Meara

I didn’t come from wealth.

Growing up, my dad worked as a mechanic and my mom became disabled when I was young, so our income options were limited. Up until recently, my parents rented our home, both of my grandparents were also renters, and despite how much my parents did to make ends meet, we didn’t have secure housing. At 14, I got my first job and the income I earned went to my family, to buy food, pay bills and pay rent.

I know firsthand how far an extra few hundred dollars can go, especially when without generational wealth to fall back on. Because my family didn’t own a home – which is one of the main pillars of building generational wealth – that means owning a home myself has been out of my reach. Given Idaho’s lack of affordable homes and high cost of living, it will likely be that way at least for the foreseeable future.

As the education director for Intermountain Fair Housing Council, I work with Idahoans who are experiencing housing insecurity or discrimination in housing. The goal of our organization is to ensure open and inclusive housing for all people and all sources of income. Every day I see how even a few hundred dollars can make a difference in someone’s ability to stay housed, and that’s one of the main reasons I am in support of the creation of an Idaho Working Families Tax Credit.

The credit, which many other states have enacted, would be modeled on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Recipients would claim money based on their income, with those of more modest incomes claiming more from the credit. The credit gradually tapers off as a household’s income increases, giving a bridge to self-sufficiency via an adjustment for earning.

While this credit wouldn’t cost Idaho’s budget much, it could make an important difference for the many Idaho households living paycheck to paycheck. Those few hundred dollars could be the difference between paying rent or facing eviction. Those of us who live paycheck to paycheck know that old adage, “Rent eats first.” A household facing financial insecurity will prioritize paying rent, before paying for car repairs, food or even necessary medical treatment. The basic human need for shelter supersedes all those things when the situation is dire enough.

Staying housed in a safe, stable situation is one of the best ways Idahoans can avoid housing discrimination. When a household falls behind on rent and faces eviction, it also faces the prospect of entering Idaho’s unforgiving housing market. The lack of accessible, affordable and available homes for Idahoans of modest means creates an environment where already vulnerable people are susceptible to discrimination. With so few affordable homes available, predatory landlords can and do discriminate on the basis of many of the categories forbidden under 1968’s federal Fair Housing Act.

While the Intermountain Fair Housing Council exists in part to help households facing that discrimination, I would prefer to see families avoid it completely. I believe an Idaho Working Families Tax Credit would help them do so.

I know what it is like to be a part of a family that has to worry about money, even while family members still work. While this tax credit would not cost the state of Idaho much, for Idaho families of modest incomes it could mean the difference between staying housed or facing the trauma of homelessness. There is no need more basic than the need for a safe home. We can and should enact policy helping more of our neighbors secure that need.

Brittany O’Meara, of Boise, is the education director at Intermountain Fair Housing Council, and she teaches English at Boise State University.

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