Eviction Prevention in Idaho: An Interview with Ali Rabe

The following is an interview conducted by Archbridge Director of Programs Ben Wilterdink with Ali Rabe, Executive Director at Jesse Tree, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing eviction and homelessness in Idaho’s Treasure Valley. We discuss the importance of eviction prevention, her views on the state of housing in America, and how people can best help prevent homelessness in their communities.

Profectus Magazine aims to publish a wide variety of viewpoints on the most pressing challenges of the day. For more on Housing in America, check out the Profectus Housing Roundtable and Interview with M. Nolan Gray, author of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.

Ben Wilterdink: Starting with a broader overview, what is the mission of Jesse Tree, and how do you accomplish it?

Ali Rabe: Jesse Tree’s mission is to support people at risk of eviction and homelessness, empowering them to stay in their homes. We do this by providing one-time emergency rental assistance and individualized case management. Our services and resources allow people to avoid immediate eviction and stay housed in the long term.

Ben: What are some of the critical advantages of keeping people in their homes rather than helping those already experiencing homelessness?

Ali: Prevention is the more humane option. Homelessness has grave financial, physical, and social consequences that last a lifetime. Evictions interrupt school and work and cause tenants to lose their possessions and social networks. With an eviction on record, finding new housing or increasing income is difficult. People without homes can’t routinely shower or sleep, experience trauma, and live a stressful and unhealthy lifestyle, making them more likely to develop additional health problems. They adapt to the experience, making it easier to fall back into homelessness again.

Prevention is also a cost-effective option. It costs Jesse Tree $2,000 on average to keep a family in their home. In comparison, in our community, it costs $15,000 to re-home a family once they’ve become homeless, and $53,000 a year per person actively experiencing homelessness in supportive, health, and emergency services.

Ben: In addition to financial assistance, another service provided by Jesse Tree includes case management. Can you explain what that entails and what that means for a typical family seeking aid?

Ali: Case management offers services beyond a rent check. We want our clients to avoid immediate eviction and gain the skills and knowledge needed to remain housed in the long term. Case managers review tenants’ budgets and connect them to needed resources and employment. They have hard conversations with tenants, where required. They create individual housing stability plans with achievable goals they can work towards. Our case managers are also trained in mediation and work with landlords in tandem through the eviction process.

We share data with the shelters, and 92% of all clients served are still housed five years later. This high success rate reflects our case managers’ deep work with clients.

Ben: What would you consider to be the biggest success or successes in your work at Jesse Tree? What has been the biggest challenge?

Ali: We have changed the conversation around homelessness in our community and state. People understand that it’s not too late for us and that we have a chance to get ahead of the problem of homelessness, unlike many other cities around the United States. We have inspired people to have hope around this seemingly intractable issue.

On the flip side, we will always have more people applying for rental assistance than we can support. We have set up our front end like an emergency room in a hospital, triaging cases as they come in. We prioritize the most urgent and vulnerable cases first, but it’s always hard to hear the stories coming in. We have to turn many people away. We do what we can to offer support, information, and resources to everyone, though, no matter what, to empower them to resolve the situation on their own.

Ben: How would you describe the state of housing in America more broadly? Are there any significant similarities or differences to the parts of Idaho you serve?

Ali: In America, housing costs – and living costs in general – have outpaced wages. This is the state of housing in America today, across the board. Over half of renters live paycheck-to-paycheck, and any unanticipated expense or shortfall can lead to an eviction. That’s why over a million people live on the streets or in shelters in our country.

All parts of Idaho have similar challenges with the cost of housing. Urban sprawl has caused even more typically rural areas to have growing rent prices. However, resort communities are particularly stretched thin. Many out-of-state investors have bought up housing that they Airbnb, which has only worsened pre-existing housing shortages. Out of desperation, the Ketchum/Sun Valley area recently considered developing a tent city for its workforce.

Ben: If you could change any one thing about housing in America, what would it be?

Ali: Nonprofits are attempting to fill the gaps in the government and market failure that is the housing crisis, but we are highly under-resourced compared to the need.

Most housing is owned by large companies that are profit-driven, and the cost of housing will continue to increase if the provision of housing is about a bottom line. If housing is a human right and basic need, we must rethink how we consider it a commodity. Many housing developers struggle to make projects pencil with the high land, labor, and materials costs. But still, their investors are making a pretty penny on rental income, in perpetuity, over time. There must be a better way.

We need more government resources and incentives to develop affordable and public housing and more case management and money for people in housing crises. Public housing was much more well-funded before deep cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the 1980s. We got back to some of those funding levels during the pandemic, but far too few of the much-needed programs that started over the last few years have continued. Some local governments and philanthropy are stepping up to fill the gaps, which is excellent, but there is only so much they can do. A more robust federal response is needed.

We also need businesses to own their role in this. Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night, and due to housing shortages, many companies are struggling to maintain their workforce. Businesses should look into options to provide housing or child care to their employees to free up their most significant basic expenses and look at the income inequalities in their budgets. It’s no secret that while many companies are highly profitable, most profits go to shareholders and executives rather than the employees who keep the country running daily.

Ben: Thinking about the future, say the next 5-10 years, how optimistic are you about the ability of people in the communities you serve to stay in their homes?

Ali: I am optimistic for my community. For others, I certainly feel less so. I used to work in homelessness in the Bay Area, and I helped administer and monitor multi-million dollar grants that were keeping formerly homeless people housed, or to respond to the problem of homelessness. We didn’t have the opportunity to use funds to prevent homelessness or build our way out of the problem. All of our resources were going to the homeless response. For those communities, I don’t know how they’ll get their way out of what is essentially a humanitarian crisis. Here, homelessness is rising, but it’s still manageable. Local governments like the City of Boise are doing a lot to create more affordable units and avoid a worsening crisis. We also have a very generous community filled with people, foundations, and businesses who are invested here and want to keep it a wonderful place to live.

I also feel very confident about the work Jesse Tree is doing. I focus on the families we serve and their stories, which gives me an inordinate amount of inspiration.

Watching the housing market change here sometimes gives my hope pause. Seeing many out-of-state developers enter our market and treat tenants like a bottom line is disheartening. Sometimes, I worry that even though we are increasing rental supply, the cost of housing won’t decrease as supply continues to be controlled by a handful of big businesses.

Ben: What is something that most people who are fortunate enough not to have to think about eviction or homelessness miss?

Ali: Most people don’t realize that it is an incredible privilege never to have the thought of housing insecurity cross their mind. Knowing where you will sleep tonight, next week, and next month provides the confidence and stability that too many people don’t have.

A lot of us indeed are where we are today because of the choices we make. But, from watching our clients, circumstances outside our control can guide our path. Most of our clients have experienced childhood trauma, an event many of us are lucky to have avoided, and they are still overcoming it. Our clients also do not have the family support many of us have. In college, for example, my parents helped me many times with my rent, a lucky circumstance I was born into. I believe people who don’t have that sort of support should still have the opportunity to move forward.

Ben: What pieces of advice would you offer to people interested in preventing homelessness in their communities?

Ali: Before anyone starts a new venture, I always make sure they take a look at the current industry. If nonprofits already work in this area, create and build from there rather than starting something new.

Targeting resources to people who need them is also essential. Effective prevention programs target funds and services for people at high risk of housing loss. That’s usually low-income folks who are in the legal eviction process. The courts are a critical partner for any prevention program. I recommend agencies look at the demographics and other data of folks in their community who are already homeless to see what subpopulations or other traits are expected so that resources can be targeted there. It’s also crucial to consider ways to partner with public health and corrections. Many people entering homelessness are exiting from institutions and jails.

If your community still needs to do this, get started now. Until wages can keep pace with rising housing costs, communities must have a safety net for families living on the line.

Ali Rabe
Ali Rabe
Ali is the Executive Director at Jesse Tree, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing eviction and homelessness in the Treasure Valley. Prior to joining Jesse Tree, Ali worked with local governments and service providers in their efforts to prevent and end homelessness in the Bay Area. She spent the early years of her legal career supporting refugees and other displaced populations around the world. Her experiences there led to her passion to prevent homelessness from happening to people and communities. Ali is a proud alumnus of The College of Idaho and holds a J.D. from William & Mary Law School. She is the State Senator for District 16. Follow the work of Jesse Tree at https://www.jessetreeidaho.org
Explore additional categories