Major housing bill narrowly passes Utah Senate

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Garden Loft Apartments, at 100 West 600 South, in Salt Lake City, as seen while under construction on Aug. 8, 2019. The affordable housing project was built with help from the state-managed Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund. Senate Bill 39, which would pump nearly $15 million in new money into the fund, passed a major hurdle Wednesday on Utah's Capitol Hill.

The Utah Legislature’s most substantial effort this year to address the state’s affordable housing problems took an important leap forward.

The Utah Senate narrowly passed SB95 Wednesday on a vote of 16-to-11 as senators some continue to balk at bill’s $35.3 million price tag.

SB95 would pump $15 million into the state-managed Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund for low-interest loans to private developers seeking to build affordable houses and apartments. Another $15 million would be spent on rental assistance to struggling families, in partnerships with city housing authorities.

Another $5 million of the bill’s spending would go to preserving existing low-income dwellings across the state that might otherwise be demolished or remodeled and rented at higher rates. Nearly $300,000 would be devoted to helping affordable housing projects in rural areas get off the ground.

The so-called gap financing loans to developers, according to SB39’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, could produce as many as 2,300 apartments with rents within reach of those making between 30% and 60% of the state’s average incomes.

And the bill’s rental aid, he said, would keep roughly 3,000 families from losing their homes.

“We’ve tried to tackle an exceedingly difficult problem, one that I fully acknowledge is not going to be solved by government,” Anderegg told colleagues Wednesday. Low-income residents served by the bill, he said, “are legitimately one life event away from being homeless.”

“We’re trying with this effort to prevent people from becoming homeless, where we can spend a few resources up front versus a lot of resources with intervention,” the senator said.

The bill is also backed by the nonprofit Utah Housing Coalition and other housing advocates.

Senate passage now pushes SB95 to the Utah House, where Anderegg said it would likely remain sidetracked until legislative leaders finalize the session’s budget numbers. He said at that point, the bill’s spending would probably be cut.

“It is a healthy fiscal note,” he acknowledged. “But I think we’re very realistic as to the constraints we have.”

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, was among the 11 senators opposed to SB39 Wednesday over its proposed spending. In a debate the day before, the veteran lawmaker said the measure stepped outside the proper role for state government and was up against more important budget priorities.

Hillyard also noted that SB39’s backers had cast it as an opening chapter in state efforts to address housing issues.

“This is the beginning and it’ll get much bigger,” he said. “I don’t like the beginning, so I’m voting no.”

SB95, Anderegg noted, is the product of two years of work by a state-created panel studying housing affordability and Utah’s current shortage of homes, estimated at between 45,000 and 55,000 dwellings.

“I hope I haven’t wasted too much time in that effort,” said Anderegg, the commission’s co-chairman.

The commission’s primary effort on Capitol Hill last year — SB34 — had its proposed spending of $24 million for the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund stripped in the session’s final days.