Gehrke: Without a big investment in affordable housing, Salt Lake’s homeless efforts could be wasted

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

For more than a year the state, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have been trying to get their hands around the issue of downtown homelessness, and it appears that there has been some progress.

Crime has fallen around Pioneer Park, people are getting easier access to services, drug rehab and mental health efforts are ramping up. Signs are pointing in a positive direction.

But all of those advances could vanish if the state doesn’t aggressively go after the most foundational and perhaps the most difficult and expensive part of the problem — the lack of affordable housing.

Statistics from the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimate that Utah has a shortage of 47,000 affordable units. And that is defined as a unit someone who makes 30 percent of the median income can rent for 30 percent of their income.

James Wood, an economist with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, says 1 in 5 households below the median income spend at least half of their monthly pay — and in many cases, up to 70 percent — on housing.

That leaves families struggling financially and unable to save for things like the inevitable health crisis or to send a kid to college. And it makes it even harder for those people shooed out of Pioneer Park to find stability and restart their lives.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, has a possible solution. His bill, HB464, calls on the state to issue $100 million in bonds — essentially borrow the money — and give it to the Olene Walker Housing Trust Fund. That fund would then provide grants to help subsidize affordable housing projects.

You might think that, after borrowing $1 billion for roads last year, the state might be willing to put $100 million toward, you know, people. But it is going to be a struggle to get Briscoe’s bill past a conservative Legislature that loathes new debt, particularly when the state has a $500 million-plus surplus and an appetite for election-year tax cuts.

In meetings with advocates this week, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, proposed a sensible alternative that could benefit low-income Utahns and perhaps be easier for the Legislature to digest. He suggested a blend of some level of bonds and income tax credits for developers building low-income projects.

It would mean less debt for the state. It would also be easier to get off the ground since bonds take time to issue while tax credits could kick in sooner. That means we could start seeing apartments being built faster.

The benefits of affordable housing programs would not be limited to the Wasatch Front, nor should they be, since the entire state is grappling with the affordable housing shortage. Wasatch and Summit counties have some of the highest rental prices in the state, and in places like Rich and Piute counties, the average renter has to work more than two full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

And the impacts of the housing shortage go well beyond homelessness.

Erin Jemison, public policy director with YWCA Utah, said her organization is unable to find affordable housing for women trying to get out of abusive situations. That means they stay at shelters longer, if they can get in the shelter at all.

Last year, her organization had to turn down 1,447 requests for shelter because of a lack of room, Jemison said. That leaves those women, with nowhere else to turn, stuck in an abusive and potentially life-threatening situation.

“Affordable housing is, I believe, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for keeping women and children safe,” she said.

Students with stable housing do better in school, Briscoe said, and inmates who have a place to live are less likely to reoffend.

So, yes, his bill comes with a hefty price tag, but it is an investment in people that Utah really can’t afford not to make.