With time running short, advocates press Utah lawmakers to pass affordable housing bills

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson speaks at a news conference in 2017. Atkinson appeared at an event on March 8, 2019, where she pushed state lawmakers to pass an affordable housing bill.

One of Utah’s best known champions for the homeless urged state lawmakers Friday to make passing affordable housing legislation “a top priority, because it is going to change lives.”

With the 2019 Utah Legislature set to adjourn Thursday, Pamela Atkinson joined housing advocates and others on Capitol Hill in pressing for a final vote on SB34, which would substantially boost state spending on low-interest housing loans and create new housing-related rules for cities.

“It is going to make a huge difference,” said Atkinson, an adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert, elder in the First Presbyterian Church and lifelong homeless advocate.

Standing at Atkinson’s side, Salt Lake City resident Jeanna Neiberger, 38, told of her difficulties in finding a home as she and her children try to move out of transitional housing.

“I’ve been out for the last week searching for affordable housing units,” Neiberger said. “The soonest one is available is five months and it's not for lack of trying.”

Housing affordability has risen dramatically on the state’s political agenda in the recent year, as escalating rents and house prices continue to make homes inaccessible for many residents making below-average incomes.

June Hiatt, policy director for the Utah Housing Coalition, said there was a widening recognition that stable housing was also critical to helping children succeed in school and to help families afford health care.

Creating new housing options in Utah, Atkinson added, “gives our homeless and low-income friends hope and when they have hope, that's the beginning of some self-esteem and self-worth. That's the beginning of looking towards a possible future.”

SB34, which remains in the House Rules Committee, would make a one-time $20 million payment to the Olene Walker Housing Loan Trust Fund and $4 million yearly after that, boosting its ability to provide gap financing to housing projects statewide.

In its 2018 fiscal year, the fund contributed to 14 housing developments spread across Utah that are accessible to residents with below-average wages, helping to create 779 new dwellings in projects worth a total of $132 million.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, and SB34 sponsor, called the proposed funding boost “a huge first step.”

“This is showing our commitment,” he said. “We're stepping up to the plate and we recognize we have a role to play.”

In an interview, Anderegg said he expected SB34 to reach the House floor for debate prior to the legislative session drawing to a close on midnight Thursday.

Housing advocates are also closely watching HB386, which would devote $3 million a year to rehabilitate aging homes to keep them in the state’s affordable housing stock. That measure, backed by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, remained in the Senate rules committee as of Friday.