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Too many Salt Lake City renters are living on the edge, study shows

First Published      Last Updated Oct 29 2015 11:53 am

Housing crisis » Nearly half who rent in the city are “one hiccup” from homelessness or financial disaster, advocate warns.

Nearly half of Salt Lake City's renters are shouldering rents beyond their budgets, leaving them pinched for cash when it comes to other living needs, a new study says.

An analysis released Wednesday finds that about 25.6 percent of the Utah capital's tenants fork over between 30 cents and 50 cents of every dollar they earn on monthly rent, making them "moderately cost-burdened."

And another 23.1 percent are "severely cost-burdened," meaning they spend more than half their earnings to rent apartments or houses, according to the study by the online listing service ApartmentList.

The study, based on 2014 U.S. census data on median rents and incomes, was released just as both candidates in the hotly contested Salt Lake City mayor's race are making affordable housing a central campaign issue.

Finance experts say rents above 30 percent of residents' incomes force difficult day-to-day sacrifices, with burdened renters having to forgo other basics such as health care or saving for emergencies, retirement or a mortgage down payment.

One Utah housing advocate described these renters as living on the edge of homelessness or financial disaster.

"Once there's a hiccup in their lives, they can't catch up," said Tara Rollins, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Housing Coalition, which lobbies for affordable-housing construction statewide.

"They give up medications and get sick," Rollins said. "Or they can't get to work because their car got towed or they can't afford the gas."

Salt Lake City is hardly alone in this regard.

The ranks of cost-burdened renters nationwide have grown by nearly 1.7 million people since the onset of the Great Recession, according to the ApartmentList study.

Regionally, the study pegged the share of cost-burdened renters at 39.6 percent to 51 percent of all renters for Wasatch Front counties, with Salt Lake County at 46.5 percent.

Ogden's cost-burdened ratio was 56.5 percent and West Valley City's 51.1 percent. Provo and Orem had ratios of 54.1 percent and 45.5 percent, respectively.

The new research comes out as Salt Lake City emerges as part of a regional boom in apartment construction, with thousands of new units planned or already being built. Most of the new dwellings along the Wasatch Front, however, continue to be priced at higher market rates.

A 2013 study had estimated the city needed an additional 8,240 moderately priced homes to meet the needs of low- and medium-income workers and their families, the disabled and those on fixed incomes.

In late January, Mayor Ralph Becker unveiled an initiative meant to bring at least 5,000 additional affordable apartments and single-family homes into the city's housing stock during the next five years, a program dubbed "5000 Doors." Nearly a year in the works before it was announced, the effort has involved private developers, lending institutions, government agencies, community groups and homeless advocates, said Melissa Jensen, the city's deputy director of Housing and Neighborhood Development.

The city also has been a conduit for nearly $4.3 million in state tax incentives, federal block grants, loans and other funding sources to make it feasible for developers to build affordable multi- and single- family dwellings, whether stand-alone or as part of larger market-rate housing projects.

"It's been the heart of what we do," said Jensen, who called 5000 Doors "a collaborative effort that requires a diverse set of partners to truly be successful."

Becker, whose professional background includes urban planning, repeatedly has mentioned the importance of ensuring that residents from a variety of income levels are able to live affordably in the city.

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