Lawmakers take small steps on Utah’s big affordable housing problem

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is continuing to work on Utah's affordable housing problem, though little was done in this area in the 2018 session. Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.

Legislators came into the session knowing Utah had a 40,000-unit affordable housing gap. They left without taking action to spur the kind of development advocates and researchers argue is desperately needed before it becomes a drag on the economy.

Lawmakers instead passed bills that will lead to more studies on Utah’s affordable housing crisis, and they created a commission that is expected to drive efforts on housing affordability.

Utah’s dearth of affordable housing is putting more residents at risk of homelessness and making it harder for moderate-income residents to buy a home. Advocates and some legislators say that, while the session delivered funding for homeless shelters, the problem of affordable housing is expected to continue to grow with no clear plan to contain it.

“We don’t need to study this issue any longer,” said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition. “They’re not investing any money into housing. Construction costs are going to go up. Land costs are going up.”

A study by researchers at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute that’s set to be released after the session will show that 125,000 households in Utah are spending 50 percent of their incomes on housing. The issue, the University of Utah researchers wrote in a draft obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, is putting even moderate income residents at risk.

“An increase in rental rates threatens their economic well-being and increases their chances of eviction and homelessness,” according to the study.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, the outgoing Draper Republican who has taken a lead role in the state’s response to homelessness, agreed the session closed without meaningful action on housing.

“Affordable housing is becoming harder and harder and it’s not just with those that are trying to find self-sufficiency, that have been homeless,” Hughes said. “We’re looking at people whose jobs have typically paid for where they live.”

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, wanted to reward cities that have built enough housing for poorer residents by requiring those without sufficient low-income units to help pay for the homeless shelters. An affordable unit is defined as one where people could afford it without spending more than 30 percent of their monthly wages.

Eliason worked for much of the 45-day session to determine how much each affordable housing unit was worth to the state. While he got his concept through the House, the bill was viewed as too complex and faced strong opposition from cities who thought it was too punitive.

Lawmakers opted to take $6.6 million out of the state’s budget and future budgets and dedicate it to running homeless shelters instead.

“It was an extremely complex formula,” Eliason said.

Lawmakers also rejected a bill that would have authorized a $100 million bond for building affordable housing. The bill made it out of committee but stalled in the House.

They approved a bill that would divert some sales tax money from cities that don’t have homeless shelters to pay for increased costs of those that do, including South Salt Lake, Salt Lake City, Midvale, St. George and Ogden. The money will pay for the additional expenses for police and other first responders in shelter cities.

Last year, the Legislature mandated the June 30, 2019, closure of The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City in favor of opening three smaller shelters: two in Salt Lake City and one in South Salt Lake.

Some advocates said they were pleased to see the Legislature take the issue seriously, even if more aggressive actions failed to pass.

Michael Parker, a policy analyst with the Salt Lake Chamber, said the bills would “tee up” action in future sessions, when lawmakers will have more information to help guide action.

“Our expectation was about awareness this year,” Parker said. “It’s about educating legislators.”