‘Nobody has my back’: Utah’s housing crisis pushes many renters to a financial breaking point

Four Utahns talk about the sacrifices they’ve made as housing takes so much of their income.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jazmin May waters flowers in her Salt Lake City apartment near Liberty Park on June 4, 2021.

A single mom on disability struggles to provide food and clothing for her teenage daughter. A recent college graduate forgoes therapy. A young professional puts off buying a home and taking the next steps in his life. And a 74-year-old in a senior living community knows her monthly Social Security budget down to the cent.

The lives of these Utahns are all being shaped by spending around 50% or more of their income on housing each month.

Their challenges are part of a larger statewide housing crisis, one that is being blamed on both a shortage of homes and sluggish income growth that isn’t keeping pace with soaring real estate prices.

While past spikes in housing costs have priced people out of home ownership in Utah, the current affordability crisis is more all-encompassing — so it’s also stretching renters to the breaking point, said James Wood of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“I speak from personal experience,” said Wood, a senior fellow at the Gardner Institute. “I have people in my basement, and I’ve tried to help them find places. It’s really tough.”

Nearly one in five renters in Utah is severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least half their income on housing and often struggle to pay for food, transportation and other bills, according to federal data for 2013 to 2017. And more than 63% of the state’s lowest-income residents fall into this category, this data shows.

[Read more: Do you spend more than half your income on rent? Here are resources that can help.]

The disparities are particularly acute for Utahns of color, with a recent Gardner analysis showing that Black and Hispanic renters are more likely to face severe housing cost burdens. The research found that 32% of Black renters in the state spend more than half of their income on housing, making them almost twice as likely to face severe cost burden as white renters.

For a minimum wage worker in Utah, a rental home would have to cost $377 per month or less in order to be affordable, according to an analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But the average rent for a one-bedroom Salt Lake City apartment is nearly triple that, at $1,099 a month, according to a June report from the popular rental website, Zumper.

Wood said some of the state’s lowest-income residents receive public housing assistance, but there’s not enough money to reach everyone who needs help. Without government support, this group of Utahns lives on the brink of homelessness, with any additional hardship potentially pushing them over the edge.

“Whether it’s domestic violence, or whether it’s the loss of job or a health incident or a traffic accident,” he said. “That’s a disaster.”

Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition, notes that it’s easier to prevent people from losing their housing than it is to get them off the streets. The coalition advocates for increased wages and additional units of deeply affordable housing, to help people in this position before they’re pushed into homelessness.

Even those who are moderately cost-burdened — meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing — face challenges, Rollins noted. But she doesn’t think that many Utahns and policy makers are paying enough attention to this swath of Utahns who are barely keeping their heads above water.

“Unless they feel it, see it, they don’t get it,” she said. “You can’t see somebody’s wallet and how empty it is.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jan Aus, a 74-year-old apartment resident in Sandy, says her rent keeps rising.

‘Nobody has my back’

When Jan Aus, 74, moved into a senior living community in Sandy seven years ago, she was shelling out $720 for rent each month.

“And then they raised it $10 two or three years after that,” she recounted. “And then, bing, they hit me with $65 a year.”

Today, Aus is paying $925 to live in her one-bedroom apartment ― a figure that sucks up the bulk of her Social Security check. She knows the amount she has to budget each month down to the cent: $1,251.80.

Aus said there are people who are “worse off than I am,” noting that she’s receiving government assistance available to low-income Utahns to help pay for electricity and food. She owns her car and considers her health insurance “good,” as long as she makes sure to get generic prescriptions.

Still, she said the amount of money she’s putting toward rent has become stressful, especially as she waits to see whether the apartment complex where she lives will raise her rent again this fall.

“It scares me,” she said. “And like I said, they’re going to hit me in September ... and it scares me to think they’re going to raise it again. I just feel like nobody has my back.”

If not for the federal pandemic stimulus checks, Aus said, she wouldn’t have any kind of savings, money she’s socked away in hopes that she can put a security deposit down on a more affordable apartment soon.

The problem, she said, is that there’s very little available in her price range of $800 to $900 a month, other than a room in someone else’s house.

“I don’t see myself going that way,” she said. “That to me is kind of scary. I think we need more affordable housing, I really do. Because it’s not going to get any better. To me, it’s going to get worse.”

‘I want to take care of more of my health’

Jazmin May has cut back her therapy sessions from once a week to once a month. The 24-year-old Salt Lake City resident can’t go in for an eye exam as soon as she’d like. And she’s had to ask her parents to chip in some money when her car needed repairs.

That’s all because rent claims about 50% of her income, and she has to stretch the rest to pay her other bills.

“For right now, it works for me,” she said. “I do wish I had more money left over in my paycheck just to be able to afford other things. I want to take care of more of my health.”

May says many of her other friends from college are also struggling, as they strain their early-career salaries to cover the cost of housing. Some have found it impossible and have gone back to live with their parents, she said.

She and a friend signed a lease for their two-bedroom apartment near Liberty Park in 2019, but the pandemic that arrived just months later quickly jeopardized the living arrangement. Her friend lost a retail job and had to move back to her family home in Ogden.

May said she considered looking for another roommate and decided it would be better for her mental health if she lived alone for a while.

Taking on the entire rental payment meant accepting a job at an area museum rather than continuing to hop between political campaigns — work that she loves but is too unreliable for her right now.

“I feel like I have sacrificed, in a way, my passion, to be able to afford housing, because I love campaigns and politics and outreach,” she said. “But campaigns are also not a stable job, and often you don’t get benefits. So I decided to just take a break from politics for a little.”

Even with the more predictable salary, May said home ownership seems like an unattainable goal at this point, especially since she’s worried that housing costs will always be one step ahead of her income growth.

She peruses rental listings for fun sometimes, but she’s not convinced she could find something cheaper, especially considering the pet fees she’d have to pay for her cat, Lilith. Her only other option, she said, would probably be to move into her parents’ home, as some of her friends have done.

‘You just kind of want to be an adult’

Fresh out of college 10 years ago, Orem resident Eric Wilson set a long-term goal of saving enough for a down payment on a home.

He’s passed up concerts he wanted to attend, vacations he wanted to take and movies he wanted to see. He’d love to buy the latest tech gadgets and the newest iPhone, but he’s socking away every extra penny in his investment portfolio instead.

Still, the 31-year-old marketing specialist said he doesn’t feel much closer to buying a house than he did a decade ago — and perhaps even further away, as he watches home values grow at warp speed compared to his slow-and-steady savings. So he can’t help but wish Utah’s economy would hit the tiniest snag.

“Just a little bit. Not enough to hurt anybody,” he half-jokes. “Just to make house prices go down.”

Making it especially hard to save is his current rent, which eats up nearly half of his salary.

Wilson has lived in the two-bedroom unit since shortly after he graduated from Utah Valley University. He had a roommate initially but opted not to get another one after his friend married and moved out.

“You just kind of want to be an adult and go off and do your own thing and have your own space and not have to worry about marking your milk,” he said. “But at a certain point, if prices keep rising, it’s not really feasible.”

Wilson had gotten about a fifth of the way to his goal of saving $100,000 when COVID-19 struck and his marketing agency had to cut jobs, including his. His unemployment lasted six months, forcing him to deplete the nest egg he’d spent so long accumulating.

He keeps browsing online real estate listings, despite knowing how far away he is from becoming a homeowner. The hobby is becoming increasingly demoralizing, though, he said.

Three years ago, he toured a modest home in a nice neighborhood that was pretty affordable for him, priced at a bit less than $200,000. Recently, he saw the same place had sold again for $415,000.

Wilson said he likes his apartment and knows he’d have to pay much more if he relocated. But he’s also weary of renting. He’s tired of feeling like he has to put off his life — and delay buying a dog or becoming a foster parent.

“I’m just kind of not at that point where I can do that space-wise,” he said. “But I would love to do that. And having a home would help make that possible.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

‘This is where you belong’

Anna, 50, is a single mother supported by disability payments from Social Security and living in an income-restricted apartment complex in Holladay — but with around $700 left over each month after she pays her rent, she said, she’s still struggling.

While her monthly housing costs have ballooned from $850 when she first moved into the two-bedroom apartment in 2016 to $1,077 now, her disability income hasn’t increased at the same rate.

“It’s a huge stress,” Anna said. She fears she might be pushed out of the unit for speaking out about her rent increase, and The Salt Lake Tribune is not publishing her surname.

Among her biggest challenges is making sure her 13-year-old daughter can access nutritious foods, a goal she said is easier thanks to assistance from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Otherwise, my daughter probably would just be eating rice,” Anna said.

She’s also struggled at times to supply her daughter with new clothes that fit as she outgrows old ones.

Anna said she’s trying to save money, but “life keeps happening,” such as a car problem earlier this year that claimed everything she had saved and more. Sometimes, she worries that one misstep could land her and her daughter on the streets.

Drowning in monthly housing costs, Anna said she’s been searching online for a more affordable apartment in the hopes that she wouldn’t have to stretch so much to make ends meet — but she’s growing increasingly discouraged.

“I do keep on looking,” she said. “I keep hoping maybe I’ll find somewhere that is rent manageable as well as safe that I can move my daughter and I to so we can be able to provide for ourselves without having to rely on governmental programs completely. And basically feel like we’re being pushed into that hole that, well, if you can’t work for yourself, then this is where you belong. That’s how it feels.”

Hours after speaking with The Tribune, Anna received a notice taped to her door that her rent was being increased once again: to $1,122 starting July 1.