As officials dissect the first year of Operation Rio Grande, some are pointing to deep structural problems in Utah's housing markets as a major contributor to homelessness.

State, county and city leaders touted their progress last week in the police and social-services campaign, which has targeted crime and vagrancy in the Rio Grande neighborhood around Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter. But advocates say that, despite hundreds of homeless being helped and housed through the program, thousands more residents remain vulnerable without wider and more systemic government action to reverse a lack of affordable housing.

Low-income advocates with the Crossroads Urban Center and the government-reform group Alliance for a Better Utah have launched a campaign asking Gov. Gary Herbert and state lawmakers to deliver more money in the upcoming 2019 budget to expand affordable housing and temporary shelter options for individuals and families.

“Utahns’ wallets are feeling the pinch of rising housing costs,” said Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel for the alliance. “There are families in our neighborhoods that are just one incident away from unsheltered homelessness."

The groups are also warning of a possible shortfall in shelter beds for the homeless when The Road Home closes next year and is replaced by three smaller resource centers elsewhere in Salt Lake County.

The campaign includes a new series of short videos titled “Where Do They Go?” highlighting the role of rapidly escalating home prices in Utah since 1992 in swelling the ranks of residents who can’t afford a place to live and are forced onto the street.

Jessica Roadman, community outreach coordinator for Crossroads, said the nonprofit group hopes to spur a debate and gather petition signatures urging “concrete action” at the state level to create more low-income affordable housing.

“We’re also calling on people to not pretend that homelessness is separate from the housing crisis,” Roadman said.

Against a backdrop of ominous music, one video notes that the number of unsheltered Utahns has grown by 40 percent in the past year, while pointing out that families make up nearly a third of the state’s homeless population.

“Here’s where it all started!” the video continues, before reciting several trends that have created what some officials now describe as Utah’s housing crisis.

Prices rising, not incomes

As the state’s population continues to swell, a wide range of factors is pushing up homebuilding prices, including labor shortages, dwindling reserves of undeveloped land and rising costs of building materials. These have created a shortage of housing of all types and at all price ranges, officials say.

New research shows home prices in Utah have seen an average yearly rise of 5.7 percent over the past 26 years, pushing the median in Salt Lake County from $123,000 a generation ago to $365,500 today.

Rental rates have risen as well, though not as rapidly as home prices. Between 2010 and 2016, the median rental rate in Salt Lake County went from $832 to $1,031 monthly, a gain of 23.9 percent.

“High growth within our state is just exploding,” said Tara Rollins, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Housing Coalition. “They can’t get units on the ground fast enough, whether it’s homes or multifamily — and we’re talking market rate even.”

Numbers from the Housing Gap Coalition, backed by the Salt Lake Chamber, indicate that between 2011 and 2017, the number of new households formed in Utah has exceeded the number of housing units built in the state, leaving a total shortfall of about 43,500 homes. That gap, according to a top economist behind the research, has pushed vacancy rates for both rentals and owner-occupied housing to historic lows.

“The effect is that potential renters and buyers have fewer choices,” wrote James Wood, senior fellow and economist at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City.

According to Wood, the shortfall had also led to a “doubling up” of households, where those unable to find housing live in shared household arrangements, often parents living with their adult children.

One trigger away

All the while, most Utahns' wages have failed to keep pace as housing costs soar higher. Wood notes the effects from the housing shortage fall heaviest on those earning below Utah’s median income levels, with an estimated 100,000 households now forced to spend at least half their pay on housing costs, leaving less money for other basic needs.

Living with that kind of budget squeeze puts too many residents one financial emergency away from disaster, said Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who has backed new allocations of city sales new tax funds to affordable housing.

Mendenhall said she saw a direct link between homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, not least from the fact that more than 80 percent of those seeking homeless services at The Road Home got back into housing fairly rapidly — underscoring, in part, their vulnerability to temporary crises.

“The reasons for losing housing are not hard for most people to imagine: any combination of serious issues such as job loss, an exploitive relationship, a car accident, health care issues where there’s suddenly a huge amount of bills,” she said.

“The more housing costs, the less expendable income we have, not just to survive extenuating circumstances that might befall us but also to spend in our local economy,” Mendenhall said. “So the lack of affordable housing also contributes to our overall economic health or unhealth as well.”

The Salt Lake Chamber has launched an awareness campaign to highlight rising housing costs and possible solutions, noting that home prices in Utah have shot up at a faster rate than in large cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. The business group warns that the housing gap could begin to slow Utah’s economic growth, which currently leads the country.

In a series of meetings with municipal leaders across the state, chamber officials are gathering information on the issue for use in an upcoming media blitz, while also making a case before city councils for more high-density zoning and construction of a variety of housing types in various price ranges.

‘Overlooked’ for years

As Operation Rio Grande enters a second year, some advocates say that to really address homelessness, new housing strategies can’t focus solely on building more homes that are affordable to middle-income homebuyers.

In its three-phased approach, Operation Rio Grande brought stepped-up police action to restore public safety in neighborhoods around The Road Home, 210 S. Rio Grande St. Some homeless were jailed and others were referred for medical and addiction treatment, followed by assistance with job-training, employment and housing.

Since its launch in August 2017, the operation has reportedly served nearly 541 residents with some kind of long-term housing support.

Rollins, with Utah Housing Coalition, said that with many of those individuals only a few months in their new dwellings, it was too early to judge the effectiveness of the operation’s housing phase. But, she said, it has highlighted a dire lack of available units for extremely low-income renters, particularly in urban counties along the Wasatch Front.

One study estimated that in 2010-2014, Salt Lake County had roughly 8,347 adequate, affordable and available rental units to serve an estimated population of 27,994 extremely low-income renter households.

“We’ve overlooked this for years, and the market is not taking care of it,” Rollins said. “The units we want and we need in our community need such a deep subsidy.”

For its part, Crossroads Urban Center is urging an expansion of subsidized and low-income housing, along with more mixed-income housing units, which Roadman said has been “proven repeatedly to be the most effective in terms of getting people to work together and creating a space that’s safe for everyone.”

She also called for more permanent supportive housing for families and increasing stocks of so-called single-resident occupancy rooms in the region, especially with the closure of The Road Home shelter expected to reduce the number of available shelter beds across Salt Lake County.

“We’re really terrified about what will happen come winter of 2019,” Roadman said. “We want to make sure that no one is left on the streets.”