Homeless solutions are tough when there is little low-income housing in Salt Lake City

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Men congregate outside the Road Home shelter on 400 West and 250 South in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.

A new homeless shelter model in Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake incorporates resource centers that will help people find jobs, treatment and counseling more efficiently and get them into housing more rapidly.

The rub — where’s the housing?

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson, Matt Melville of Catholic Community Services, and Kathy Bray, CEO of Volunteers of America, all conveyed the urgent need for more low-income housing during a panel discussion Monday at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

“Affordable housing is the biggest gap,” Bray told the audience of about 50. “That’s what we have to advocate for.”

The vacancy rate in the Salt Lake area is about 2.6 percent. That includes units with low, middle and high rents.

In less than 18 months, three new homeless shelters/resource centers with a total of 700 beds are planned to come online. The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street with a capacity of 1,100 beds will close June 30, 2019, officials say.

The difference — 400 beds — will be made up by people moving more quickly through the new process. Shelter residents no longer will languish for months and years, officials say.

People who need treatment for mental-health issues and addiction will get it more quickly and won’t be housed in the shelters, according to the plan. Those in the shelters will get the resources they need on site and get back to life as they knew it.

The proposal looks good on paper, but housing for low-income people is a significant challenge, Cox said while leading the panel discussion of the new paradigm.

There are, of course, large apartment complexes sprouting up in Salt Lake City. But most of those units are market rate. People earning 60 percent of area median income who qualify for one of the rare “affordable” units would pay about $800 for a one-bedroom.

According to Salt Lake City officials, there is a shortage of about 7,000 affordable dwellings for residents earning $20,000 a year or less.

Recently, the City Council allocated $21 million to subsidize affordable-housing construction, which could support development of more than 700 homes for people and families who earn below the area’s median income.

In addition, the Utah Housing Corp. offers tax credits to developers for affordable and low-income housing. How many units that will make available is unclear.

The math doesn’t work for Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit that serves low-income people.

“I’m skeptical,” he said. “The whole [homeless shelter/resource center] plan counts on low-rent housing and the stock just isn’t there.”

Current plans for low-income housing look insufficient, Bailey said.

“The plan is a drop in the bucket compared to demand,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of new housing for people coming out of the shelters.”

Bailey worries the new homeless plan may not be enough to provide shelter to everyone who needs it, including women and children.

“Think of the potential in costs,” he said. “Will we have people who want to be inside, but can’t find a place?”

Despite the challenges, city, county and state officials say the Road Home downtown will close on schedule.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman walks past belongings of a camp along 500 South near the Salt Lake City Library on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.