Gov. Cox’s affordable housing proposal could be the $228M fix to homelessness, writes Robert Gehrke

Tiny homes or potentially purchasing and renovating hotels could be housing projects funded by the proposal.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It seems so simple, but it’s true: The solution to homelessness is affordable homes.

But after years of wrangling over shelters and trying to arrest our way out of the homelessness in Utah, we’ve still only nibbled around the edges when it comes to bridging the affordable housing gap, not just for those who are unhoused, but those whose budgets are severely strained by housing costs.

That may finally be about to change.

In his budget blueprint Tuesday, Gov. Spencer Cox proposed $228 million for affordable — and in some cases very affordable — housing across the state, a figure that is several times more than the state has ever put toward the problem before.

It would entail $128 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to subsidize housing projects for very low-income Utahns, those making less than 40% of the area median income or about $25,000 per household.

Meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board this week, Cox pointed to Salt Lake City’s tiny-home community — a neighborhood of small homes expected to house some 430 homeless residents — or potentially purchasing and renovating hotels as the type of projects envisioned for the funding.

A legislative audit last month said Utah has a chronic homeless population of about 700.

“I’m hoping to make a huge dent in that,” said Wayne Niederhauser, the state’s homelessness coordinator. This is a big deal. I believe it’s going to be — I wouldn’t say necessarily a game-changer, but it’s going to help us get a lot of supportive housing on the ground.”

The money would be matched with private, local government or philanthropic funds to stretch the dollars, at least twofold, hopefully more, Niederhauser said. Tenants in these new units would also receive case-management support, like behavioral and mental health support, that has been shown to help people stay in their homes.

It’s a critical component and the research has shown that 95% of people who are placed in permanent supportive housing do not return to homelessness.

And subsidized supportive housing is much cheaper than in-patient mental health treatment, said Bill Tibbitts, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center. Or, in a worst-case, jail.

“This is significant and I think it could make a difference, especially since it’s targeted at the lowest income, and that’s what we’ve needed for an extremely long time,” said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition.

Cox wants to spend $50 million toward building 1,100 affordable housing units, chipping away at a severe housing shortage that has caused the average home price to jump by 83%, pricing out nearly three-fourths of renters.

And another $50 million would go to building new rural workforce housing and rehabilitating dilapidated units.

“If we’re going to invite the world to Utah and want to treat them well, we also need to treat the people who are going to be servicing them well,” said Rollins.

What is encouraging about this proposal is that it attacks the core of the problem on two fronts — aiding those barely able to keep a roof over their heads to avoid becoming homeless, as well as helping those chronically unhoused Utahns get off the streets, get the help they need and hopefully get their lives back on track.

“I’m really excited,” Rollins said. “After all these years of going up to the Hill, I’m glad to see we’re going to make an investment in the infrastructure we need for housing.”

Of course the governor’s budget proposal is just that — a proposal. The Legislature ultimately drives Utah’s process and doesn’t usually give much deference to the governor’s wishes.

Years ago, I asked one legislative leader what he thought of the then-governor’s budget and he told me he appreciated it very much because he was able to put it under the leg of a wobbly table and steady it.

So the Legislature still needs to be sold on the proposal.

“That’s my next job,” said Neiderhauser, who, as the former Senate president, understands what lies ahead as well as anyone.

Hopefully it won’t be a hard sale.

Because for once Utah has an opportunity to make a commitment to addressing the core of the state’s housing and homelessness challenges, rather than continuing to try to deal with the consequences of trying to make due with band-aid solutions for a gushing artery.