As the pandemic has led housing prices to skyrocket and generated an increased awareness of homelessness in the state, Utah lawmakers and philanthropists came together Wednesday to celebrate a historic investment meant to mitigate those challenges.
The state Legislature will put an additional $50 million toward housing and homelessness this year — the bulk of which will be spent on preserving existing units of housing affordable for low-income individuals.
The rest of the money will go toward development of new dwellings and to support homeless services, including the creation of a new governance structure tasked with overseeing programming for the state’s unsheltered individuals.
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Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, said Wednesday that it was impossible to overestimate the importance of that funding in “giving more Utahns an opportunity to have safe and affordable housing.”
“In my opinion, this is the biggest commitment our Legislature has ever made toward homelessness and housing our most vulnerable,” he said during a news conference on the steps of the Utah Capitol. “What a powerful statement that is.”
State lawmakers aren’t the only ones who have stepped up to address these needs. On Wednesday, several members of the state’s philanthropic community — including Ivory and former Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller — announced that they would be matching the state’s support for homelessness and housing initiatives with an additional $730 million.
The largest chunk of that money, $500 million, will go toward preserving existing affordable housing, on top of the $25 million the state will put toward that purpose. Another $200 million will be spent on producing new affordable housing units for low-income and moderate-income Utahns.
The rest will be dispersed to support the new homeless governance and budget model, along with the $15 million the Legislature has set aside.
Homelessness and housing, “are not issues, and we know this, that government can solve alone,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson on Wednesday. “We need to come together as a state — like we’re doing today — and solve some of these big challenges and try to make a big difference.”
Senate OKs designating new homeless policy leader
During the news conference Wednesday, both lawmakers and members of the philanthropic community expressed support for the effort to shake up the state’s homeless governance structure, which has been labeled as “confusing,” overly “complex” and “inefficient.”
The bill, HB347, would create a new Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services and would put a single person in charge of overseeing policy affecting the state’s unsheltered populations, in accordance with the recommendations of a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute last fall.
And Miller, whose name is on one of the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers, said it would also better involve donors, who have poured millions into programming to support people experiencing homelessness.
“I believe the philanthropic community and Legislature are aligned,” she said. “They are aligned to improve governance, transparency, and accountability [in homeless services] and that’s critical. It gives us all greater confidence to bring additional resources.”
The Utah Senate voted unanimously Wednesday in support of the bill, which Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi and the bill’s Senate sponsor, said would improve coordination among the nonprofits, local governments and private funders that are working to address homelessness in the state.
“Quite literally up to this point we’ve been 40, 50, 60 ships all sailing similar directions, but the coordination of those services, the coordination of those resources, has been wanting,” he said.
That has also posed a frustration for donors, who he said have wondered at times, “Why continue to put tens of millions of dollars into this to have the squabbling and the lack of coordination in this process?”
Anderegg said he anticipates there will be further tweaks to the bill as the state’s homeless coordinator comes on but thinks the new system will be an improvement on the status quo.
And Miller said it comes at a “critical point” for the state’s efforts to address homelessness.
“To ensure that we don’t take steps backward we need a framework, governance and additional resources,” she said. “The current situation and structure has alignment and capacity issues, conflicts and inefficiencies.”
Under the bill, the statewide homeless coordinator would be dedicated full-time to addressing homelessness. He or she would be tasked with representing the deliberations and decisions of the new Utah Homelessness Council to the governor, the Legislature and the public at large and would also work with the public and private sector, oversee and recommend a homeless budget, and take responsibility for administrative duties.
The bill requires a final procedural vote in the House to concur with amendments made on the Senate floor before moving to the governor for his signature or veto.