Robert Gehrke: The most important bill the Legislature will consider this year might not get any money

Robert Gehrke

If you drive pretty much anywhere in Salt Lake City, you can’t miss the thousands of apartments popping up all over the city.

Your eyes don’t deceive you. Through the first nine months of 2019, building permits were issued for 2,000 more apartments than were issued in all of 2018. It’s not just a building boom, it’s a building explosion.

Even with all that construction, the state has a critical shortage when it comes to housing that is actually affordable.

A report last year from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a full-time worker would have to make $18.30 an hour to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in the state. In Salt Lake City, the figure is $20.62 an hour. A minimum wage worker would have to work nearly three full-time jobs to afford an average apartment in the capital city.

Experts estimate that Utah is suffering from a shortage of between 45,000 and 55,000 single-family homes and apartments — a dearth of housing that keeps prices high.

It’s a massive problem, one the state can’t solve on its own. At the same time, the state doesn’t need to stay on the sidelines, and SB39, sponsored by Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, would infuse significant state resources — $35.3 million is what he’s asking — into attempts to solve the problem.

“If we have the whole amount and we can make that money stretch, I think we can help six, seven, 8,000 families, which is not chump change,” Anderegg told me Tuesday. “That’s about 15% of the total problem.”

It would do this using tools formulated over two years of work by the Utah Commission on Affordable Housing.

The bill would use $15 million — matched roughly 15-to-one by private funds yielding a total of $230 million — to help finance projects and keep prices low. Another $10 million would go to emergency rental stabilization, giving some renters relatively small payments, a hundred dollars or so, to help make ends meet and stay in their homes. There is $300,000 earmarked to address rural housing.

Probably the best feature is the $5 million it would allocate for rental assistance to help children whose families are on the verge of homelessness. The state has identified 12,000 students who fall into the category — those sharing apartments with multiple families, living in cars or staying with friends or family.

It’s a humane approach and, it turns out, makes good economic sense.

“Here’s the conservative argument,” Anderegg said. “If I look at it and say, ‘Hey, we can give a family 150 to 200 bucks in rental assistance (a month) versus roughly $80 a bed per night per individual [in a shelter],’ the costs on one side of this versus preventative costs on the other, you can’t even compare it.”

It is the most sweeping, ambitious attack on Utah’s affordable housing crisis that we’ve seen, overwhelmingly benefitting the people in the most immediate peril of becoming homeless.

It’s also a lot of money — and therein lies the problem.

Legislative leaders are trying to tamp down expectations that there will be much money for new programs, blaming the voter backlash over the tax reform proposal they passed and then were forced to repeal (a tax reform proposal, by the way, that would have cut taxes and not really have translated into more money for housing programs or anything else this year).

Anderegg has no delusion that he will get the full $35 million, but he is optimistic there will be significant funding, maybe in the neighborhood of $20 million.

It’s the most important piece of legislation this session because it touches on so many other issues.

You can’t solve our homelessness problem unless homes are available and affordable. You can’t grow an economy when workers can’t afford a place to live. And you can’t teach our students the skills they need to innovate and lead if they’re constantly facing the threat of losing the only housing they have.

But getting it funded won’t be easy. The bill won initial approval from the Senate on Tuesday, getting the 15 votes it needs to move forward, with some senators expressing both fiscal and philosophical opposition to the idea.

Sen. Alan Christensen, R-Ogden, said he has more than two dozen items in the social services committee that are higher priorities, and questioned why the government should be involved in the first place.

“George Washington would roll over in his grave if he thought we were putting this many millions of dollars into fixing people’s housing problems,” said Christensen. (George Washington actually had a pretty nice place to live.)

And Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he appreciates the good intentions, but “every dime we spend up here, we take from someone else,” and taking money to pay someone’s rent isn’t the government’s job.

Last year, Angeregg ran a similar bill, looking for $24 million. It didn’t get a cent and the problem got worse. This year, the state has an opportunity to put a big dent in the problem. It would be a shame for lawmakers to look the other way and leave tens of thousands of Utah families to fend for themselves in an utterly untenable housing market.