Utah’s Legislature aims $70 million toward affordable housing. Advocates say it’s not enough.

One lawmaker argues the affordable housing crisis poses a “clear and present danger” to Utah’s prosperity.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs oppose a development at one of seven homes along 200 North and 600 West set for demolition as part of a new 312-unit new transit-friendly apartment complex, pictured here on March 11, 2021. Utah’s affordable housing advocates are seeking a big chunk of cash from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for affordable dwellings in the state.

State lawmakers appear ready to throw a sizable amount of cash toward addressing Utah’s affordable housing crisis, as they prepare to accept more than $1.5 billion in federal coronavirus stimulus money this week.

But their possible investment looks far less than the $320 million advocates were seeking.

That total — 20% of the discretionary funds from the state’s portion of the American Rescue Plan Act — is the amount sought by the Utah Commission on Housing Affordability and a statewide coalition of housing authorities, nonprofit housing developers and service agencies.

But a document from the state Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst released ahead of Wednesday’s special session shows that lawmakers are likely to set aside just a fraction of that ask — $70 million — for housing and homelessness.

That amount, which received preliminary approval from lawmakers during an Executive Appropriations committee meeting on Monday, would build upon the $50 million lawmakers approved for those needs during the spring legislative session. And it may signify a growing understanding among legislators of the problem of housing affordability, which received just $5 million in state funds in 2020 amid the pandemic.

Still, advocates say they aren’t satisfied with the $70 million figure, which some see as a missed opportunity to make a once-in-a-lifetime investment in boosting the state’s stock of reasonably priced dwellings.

“It’s an afterthought,” said Robert Vernon, executive director of the Provo City Housing Authority and a proponent of the 20% for housing proposal, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “And yet, everybody knows [affordable housing] is a crisis.”

Other areas of potential investment include $280 million for water, including for conservation and wastewater and dam safety; $115 million for the state’s COVID-19 public health response, including pandemic prevention and vaccine distribution; $80 million for education, including remote degree programs and summer and after-school capacity; and $175 million for broadband access.

But Vernon argues that some of those needs are less important to the state’s future than its gap in affordable housing.

“We’re spending a billion on infrastructure that I mean, not all of it is urgently needed,” he said. “It depends on if you want to put people first or you want to put things first. I think housing is more important than roads and bridges and broadband.”

‘A priority issue among many priorities’

Affordable housing advocates have recognized that they’re not the only ones seeking a slice of the federal funding.

“Everybody and their dog is going out to Executive Appropriations and asking for this project and that project and this specific and that specific,” noted Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi and the co-chair of the affordable housing commission, in an interview.

But he hoped legislators would see housing as “a big priority — especially because that’s one of the things the ARPA money is approved to be used for.”

There’s a long list of ways the federal dollars, which come from the $1.9 trillion spending plan Congress approved in March, can and can’t be used. Lawmakers can’t spend the money to cut taxes, either directly or indirectly, for example; but they can use it to help industries that suffered economically from the COVID-19 pandemic and on projects related to water, sewer and broadband.

As they prioritize how to dole out the funds, state leaders have come up with a list of 10 “guiding principles” to direct their spending. The top item on the list urges a focus on long-term challenges for the state, while others emphasize spending on projects with a statewide benefit or ones that otherwise would not get funded.

ARPA guiding principles from Utah legislative leaders

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said at a housing commission meeting last week that lawmakers are getting “$30 to $50 million in requests every single day” and that there are “a lot of wonderful ways to spend all this money.”

But he argued that the state’s affordable housing crisis poses a “clear and present danger to the success and prosperity of our state and the citizens of our state.”

“That is a priority issue among many priorities, but it has a significant impact on the daily life of a whole lot of Utahns — much more than some of these other one-time projects would have on a more limited group of individuals, citizens of our state,” he said. “I think this has a much further reach into almost every corner of our society.”

Advocates know their ask for $320 million is a big one, but say the need greatly outpaces even that figure, in a state that estimates it has a shortage of at least 53,000 units affordable to residents making average incomes.

Vernon, with the Provo City Housing Authority, said he estimates the actual investment needed to make a dent in Utah’s housing gap over the next 10 years would be something like $1.5 billion in Utah County and somewhere in the range of $2.5 billion in Salt Lake County.

Andrew Johnston, a former Salt Lake City Council member and the city’s new director of homelessness policy and outreach, said similarly that the 20% proposal is “not too high.”

“I think it would be hard for us to go too high on the need and the cost associated with this,” he said at the commission meeting. And he recommended that the board put forward a proposal that is “as high as we could possibly go — because I think we’re going to be still scratching, to some extent, the need.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New housing construction at The Ridge in North Salt Lake, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

‘We’re not really stepping up’

Lawmakers say it’s unlikely that all of the money for affordable housing will be directly appropriated in this week’s special session. Instead, they anticipate setting aside most of the funds now and then figuring out how to spend them later, possibly waiting until next spring to pin down specific projects.

Senate President Stuart Adams said that’s an effort to ensure any federal funds are spent “appropriately and wisely.”

“I don’t think there’s time enough before the special session to get all the information we need to do an appropriation,” he said in an interview, but added that “affordable housing will be a focus and it will be something we want to deal with.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson also said last week that he expects money for affordable housing will be set aside and spent later, noting that the Legislature plans to let the $50 million it already appropriated last from July, when it goes into effect, “until next spring.”

“I think we’ll be putting more into that space in probably a significant way next spring,” he added.

If housing advocates do ultimately fall far short of their $320 million ask, Anderegg said that lawmakers still have the opportunity to make a “remarkable” investment that could go a long way toward addressing the state’s challenges. In programs that draw matching funds, he noted, for every state dollar “there is a multiplying effect.”

Anderegg said the push for affordable housing will continue far beyond this special session.

But Vernon said the state’s affordable housing advocates haven’t given up on this round of funding yet, and plan to continue pushing for a greater investment in one of the state’s biggest challenges.

“We are glad to have it, if it’s $70 million,” he said. “But if we say, ‘That’s great,’ then you know, we’re not really stepping up and trying to get as much done as we can to try and solve the problem.”

- Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this report