Utah has stopped accepting rent relief applications. Where did the money go?

Utah has focused mostly on supplying affordable housing, but that doesn’t do much to help renters quickly and efficiently.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renters in Salt Lake City and across the state sought rent relief that was available through the American Rescue Plan Act.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Renters in every Utah county sought emergency relief during the pandemic, and one expert says the state needs to do more to get assistance directly into the hands of tenants.

As of March 27, the state had paid out more than $319 million through thousands of successful applications for aid, according to data provided by the housing and community development division of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Most of that money went to the urban counties on the Wasatch Front, which also have the most renters and a higher average number of renters making less than half the area median income.

That money has now dried up, leaving fewer resources for renters who need help to keep a roof over their heads.

Utah has focused mostly on supplying affordable housing, said James Wood, the Ivory-Boyer Senior Fellow at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. But programs to supply housing don’t do much to help renters quickly and efficiently, said Wood, whose specialty research includes housing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colony B, a mixed-income, transit-oriented, residential development in the Ballpark Neighborhood, pictured on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Of the development's 140 units, 106 are subsidized for tenants making between 25% and 50% of the area’s median income.

He wrote in a recent report that many states have added demand-focused programs like state-funded rental assistance and housing vouchers.

“Expanding direct assistance programs would provide a lifeline to the state’s most vulnerable renters and broaden Utah’s efforts in addressing the affordable housing crisis,” that report reads.

Most money went to urban areas

Utah got a total of $344 million in federal rental assistance through the American Rescue Plan. The state stopped accepting applications for emergency rental assistance in February because the money was set to run out.

Utah’s Department of Workforce Services Housing and Community Development Division provided data by ZIP code for $319.6 million distributed as of March 27. This data included refunded checks.

The Salt Lake Tribune then grouped those ZIP codes based on the primary county. Because some ZIP codes span multiple counties, part of the analysis is not exact.

People who want to see how much relief renters in their ZIP code received can use the table below. The story continues after the table.

The Tribune’s analysis found nearly all of the money went to counties with a city or urban cluster of at least 50,000 people.

Renters in those counties received 92.5% of the funds. They also make up about 90% of the state’s renter population.

Another 4.9% went to renters in counties with a city of 10,000 to 50,000 people — Cedar City, Heber, Price and Vernal. Those areas are home to 5.7% of Utah renters.

Just 2.6% went to 14 counties in more rural areas, home to about 4% of the state’s renter population.

Average distribution per renter favored counties with smaller cities

While the total amount was distributed mostly to urban areas, less populated counties received more money per renter, on average. The Tribune calculated this rather than the average amount per award because several ZIP codes had fewer than 10 applicants.

Renters in the 10 counties with a metropolitan city received $295.6 million in relief, but there are more than 263,000 of them. That’s an average of less than $800 per renter.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In five counties with a smaller city, renters received a total of $15.6 million in relief. Those counties have far fewer renters, though — fewer than 17,000. That makes the average amount received per renter around $1,000.

Renters in Utah counties with no city of at least 10,000 people received a total of $8.4 million in rent relief. With around 11,500 renters, that’s an average of $571 or so per renter.

‘A real crunch’

Utah renters need more help amid a harsh market, Wood said.

Rental rates have gone up 50% in the last five years, he said, but rental incomes have increased less than 20%.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Register at Post District Residences, pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, is one of the new neighborhood's residential buildings. Apartments within the overall development will lease from about $1,400 monthly for studios up to $4,200 for three-bedroom town homes. The building's rents are far beyond what most tenants can pay.

“It’s a real crunch,” Wood said. “People are getting squeezed and doubling up.”

The state is getting more housing, he said, but there’s still a lot of pressure on the market and few release valves as homeownership remains costly.

As the rental market has tightened, the Legislature typically has focused on funding programs focused on the supply side of the affordable housing crisis.

For example, Utah’s state tax credit program was one of the first in the nation. Since 2005, it’s helped finance 8,006 affordable rental units across 147 projects with nearly $26 million in tax credits.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved an expansion of the program. State lawmakers increased the limit on available tax credits to $10 million each year until 2029.

Utah also has the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which provides a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing. Since 2010, the state has budgeted about $2.2 million each year from the general fund and another $3 million to $5 million from federal funds and payments on outstanding loans into that fund.

The state also funds programs to help the unhoused and to preserve existing affordable housing.

But these programs provide little help to thousands of extremely low-income renters, who make at or below 30% of the median income, Wood said.

That’s $21,200 a year — about $10 an hour or less statewide -- and ranges from $18,350 to $29,750 or less in the state’s 29 counties, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Development numbers released earlier this month.

Supply-focused programs can’t reach renters making these low incomes because construction is too expensive, Wood said.

Other states have added demand-focused programs to their toolbox to help, he said.

That includes one-time rent payments, rental assistance to people leaving correctional systems or state psychiatric hospitals, loans to cover first month’s rent and state housing vouchers.

Wood thinks the state housing vouchers are the most interesting. Federal housing vouchers are fantastic, he said, but they only reach around 20 to 30% of people who are qualified.

Fourteen states have voucher programs and budget varying amounts. For example, Iowa’s program budgets around $600,000 and helps 330 people stay in their homes each month, while Connecticut budgets $6 million, which is enough for around 5,600 vouchers on top of more than 40,000 federal vouchers, according to a policy brief.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.

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