Here’s how Utah lawmakers might address the state’s affordable housing crunch this session

The efforts come as some say housing is ‘at a point of crisis in this state.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New housing construction at The Ridge in North Salt Lake, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. Many believe Utah is at a crisis point in its lack of available, affordable housing. Lawmakers are looking at some measures that could help.

Advocates, industry groups and elected leaders of both parties have united around the idea that the state is staring at a housing crisis unless it does something to reel in the soaring costs that have saddled many Utahns with untenable financial burden.

It’s a problem that has been growing for years despite state and local efforts to address the undersupply of dwellings and curb runaway home prices and rents.

Now, as thousands of Utahns struggle to make ends meet amid the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers are once again looking at ways to move the needle — but it may be difficult to muster support for all of the massive investments and complex policy changes they say could result in meaningful change.

Budget requests to address the issue top $20 million in this year’s legislative session as state leaders face down a deficit of anywhere from 42,000 to 55,000 single-family homes and rental units within reach of blue-collar workers and low-wage earners. But it’s unclear whether there’s the support to carry a request that size during a year lawmakers have promised a sizable tax cut and with other interests competing for one-time funding.

Legislative leaders are also pushing a proposal to bolster the supply of mother-in-law apartments, a measure that has garnered support from many groups but raised the hackles of city officials who don’t want to cede authority over local land use decisions.

Speaking in a recent legislative committee meeting, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz expressed frustration that affordable housing solutions keep running into opposition from the various factions and interests involved in the issue.

“I just think that we need to get serious about this issue,” Schultz said, arguing that housing demand will only increase with the passage of time. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Legislative funding

After a proposal to spend $35 million on affordable housing efforts was whittled down to $5 million last year, Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna, are hoping this is the year for a big investment. The pair have put forward a request for $15 million for affordable housing, with Kitchen arguing that the issue is “one of the most important things we can focus on as a Legislature.”

“Simply giving somebody access to stable housing results in so many positive long term impacts,” he told lawmakers during a recent budget hearing. “Giving somebody who’s living on the street access to housing, for instance, it’s amazing what all of a sudden falls into place in their life.”

If ultimately approved, Kitchen’s $15 million request would increase funds to the state-managed Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund for rental assistance and permanent supportive housing projects. He estimates the funding would help produce 1,578 affordable housing units.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, has brought forward a separate request for $5 million for affordable housing that was initially funded in last year’s legislative session but pulled back amid coronavirus budget cuts.

Anderegg said the Legislature’s main budget committee asked him to bring the request back this year, something that “doesn’t guarantee” the funding but is “a fairly good sign,” he said.

If approved, half of the $5 million would go to the Olene Walker fund to help finance affordable housing construction. The rest would go to preserving existing low-income units that might otherwise be torn down or refurbished and rented at higher rates.

“We estimate that this $5 million will have an impact of about 450 units throughout the state, which is still a drop in the bucket compared to a 40,000 to 41,000 unit shortfall,” he told lawmakers during a budget hearing last week. “But it at least is a step in the right direction.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this March 2, 2018, file photo, Sen. Jacob Anderegg makes a comment in the Economic Development committee. Anderegg has brought forward a $5 million request for affordable housing in the 2021 legislative session.

Anderegg — who is also running a bill that would create a pilot program to help city, county and local school district employees obtain affordable housing — said the economy will have to address the vast majority of the state’s housing deficit. But he said the state needs to step up to incentivize development of units at and below 80% of area median income, which the market wouldn’t otherwise create on its own.

While lawmakers are still debating what affordable housing initiatives will get funded this session, House Speaker Brad Wilson said he believes the Legislature will put “significant” resources toward the issue.

Programs like the Olene Walker Housing Fund and the housing preservation fund “are successful resources,” he said, and “this year would be a good year to consider investing in those.”

Senate leadership told reporters they hadn’t talked much about the budget requests, with budget co-chair Jerry Stevenson saying the only thing he’s seen is “some of the proposed numbers. They’re large.”

He urges due diligence for these investments. “I don’t think you can point out one government program or government financed housing that’s working across the country,” he said. “And so we need to be very careful as we go through and vet this.”

Several housing advocates spoke in favor of the budget requests during a recent committee hearing, with one noting that affordable housing is “at a point of crisis in this state.”

Sharlene Wilde, executive director of NeighborWorks Mountain Country Home Solutions, which provides affordable housing in Utah County, added that she’s seen housing stock in the state “plummet” over the past decade.

“Many of the affordable housing complexes have 300 to 400 family waiting lists and I can say this because we own affordable housing complexes and our waiting lists are that long,” she said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also spoke in support of the budget requests, noting that while the capital city has helped put $65 million toward affordable housing since 2016 — netting about 2,500 units, with 1,000 more in the pipeline — “it’s still not enough.”

“As a parent, as a mayor, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that these families need this housing and with your support, the market will help to create that depth of affordability that they need,” she said.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Then-Salt Lake City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall tours the Project Open 2 housing project in Salt Lake City, Sept. 25, 2019. The now-mayor says she supports state investment in affordable housing.

Local control

When it comes to Utah’s housing shortage, some legislative leaders are pinning their hopes on boosting the state’s supply of so-called mother-in-law apartments, which are often moderately priced and don’t require new home construction.

Cities and towns have been turning to these accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — which can take the form of basement apartments or above-garage living spaces — to increase their stock of affordable housing. But Rep. Ray Ward says bureaucratic red tape and community pushback are still interfering with the creation of new ADUs in the state, and he’s looking to remove these barriers by erasing key city powers for regulating the housing type.

While his measure has powerful supporters, city officials have objected that it would tie their hands in determining the future of their communities.

And the proposal has opened something of a political quandary for lawmakers who often extol the virtues of local governance but also believe that property owners should largely be able to modify and use their homes as they see fit.

“What’s the balance? Is this too much reaching down?” Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, said during a late January legislative committee meeting. “Help a conservative figure out how to balance where I want private property rights to reign supreme, but I don’t want to reach too far into local control.”

There are good reasons for a top-down approach in this case, Ward told state lawmakers when presenting his bill, HB82, to the committee late last month. Elected officials in cities and towns are answerable to their constituents, the people who are already living in their communities, he said.

“Those are the people who come and shake their fist and scream at their city council member and make their life miserable if they don’t do what they want,” Ward, R-Bountiful, said. “And cities are not at all responsive to people who don’t live in their city yet. That person who does not have a place to live yet, who needs a place to go stay, does not know which city council to shake their fist at.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The file photo shows one of Modal Living's “small but smart” guest houses or Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City, June 24, 2019.

And because local leaders often pay more attention to neighborhood concerns than to the state’s yawning need for affordable housing, Ward argues, it’s critical for Utah leaders to step in and give a voice to the many state residents and new arrivals who are struggling to find places to live.

The proposal he presented to a legislative committee would prohibit cities from restricting construction of an ADU that is fully contained within a single-family home occupied by the owner. HB82 would also bar municipalities from enacting controls on ADU size, how the units face the street and total lot size.

Cedar City Councilman Tyler Melling welcomed the proposed changes, saying it might take the pressure off local officials who want to provide more affordable housing but face resistance from their constituents.

“The way I see it, each member of this committee has two questions to ask themselves,” Melling told committee members. “No. 1, do homeowners have an inalienable God-given right to bring tenants into their own home to make ends meet? And No. 2, should the state of Utah protect those rights from local political pressures?”

But the Utah League of Cities and Towns and a number of local officials have come out against the proposal, objecting to the dilution of their land use authority. They’ve also issued dire predictions that adding too much ADU-related density to their communities could lead to on-street parking shortages, clogged sewer systems and overburdened fire and police forces.

Provo City Councilwoman Shannon Ellsworth was among those who spoke in opposition — even though, she noted, she’s a millennial who’s in the middle of reckoning with housing costs.

“I rent a townhouse, and I’m saving for a down payment. I am the person you’re trying to help,” she told Ray and other state lawmakers. “But this bill would sink Provo City.”

The city’s code enforcement officers are already struggling to stay on top of complaints, and she predicted that weakening Provo’s power to regulate ADUs would only make matters worse.

‘A statewide solution’

Despite these reservations, the proposal seems to have strong support within the Legislature — with Wilson, the House speaker, arguing that Utah’s housing needs are severe enough to warrant state intervention in local policies.

“Allowing cities to manage issues at the local level makes sense almost all of the time. You do have rare circumstances, though, where there is a statewide interest,” the Kaysville Republican told reporters last month. “And our housing crisis — which, let’s not kid ourselves, is becoming that if it’s not that already — is a statewide interest. And we need a statewide solution.”

An Ivory Homes representative who testified last month said his company can’t keep up with the state’s exploding housing needs and supported Ward’s bill — which is scheduled to come back before a legislative committee Monday — as a possible solution that could rebalance the market.

“We’re encouraging this because the demand is too high and the costs are just out of control,” Chris Gamvroulas, president of Ivory Development said. “We really need to get them back in control.”

To housing and anti-poverty advocates, accelerating the creation of ADUs could relieve some of the pressure that’s driving prices upward, but they also argue the state can’t rely on Ward’s bill alone to solve Utah’s home shortages.

Steve Erickson of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit that runs a food pantry and other programs assisting low-income Utahns, told legislators that the state will have to commit funding to the problem if they want to make a marked difference for the people his group serves and “attack those problems at a scale that’s necessary.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, speaks during a news conference at the Utah Capitol, June 20, 2018. Ward is pushing legislation that would limit local governments' ability to regulate and restrict accessory dwelling units, sometimes called "mother-in-law apartment."