Commentary: By expanding affordable housing, Congress strengthens our economy and health

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Project Open, an affordable housing project northwest of downtown Salt Lake City, is the first of six phases planned for 500 West. Close to the TRAX line, there is the idea of offering the use of an electric vehicle share as part of a package deal for those times when public transportation is not convenient for people who don't own a car.

Now that Congress has returned to session after the midterm elections, its members should join Sen. Orrin Hatch in strengthening and expanding Utah’s and our country’s primary tool for creating homes affordable to low-income families, seniors and veterans, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

Hatch’s leadership and commitment have been crucial to strengthening and expanding the housing credit. He will be retiring at the end of the year, and, with just a few weeks left in this session of Congress, he will be advocating hard for the remaining provisions of the bipartisan Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, of which he is the lead Republican sponsor. I encourage his colleagues to join him. The House companion bill is co-sponsored by Utah Reps. Mia Love and John Curtis, both of whom served as city mayors in Utah, which provided them with a clear understanding of housing needs on a local level and of the virtues of the housing credit.

While Utah’s strong economy has benefited families across our state, it has also sent housing costs skyrocketing. Their rapid ascent is causing a growing gap between wages and the costs of keeping a roof overhead for roughly 58,000 Utah families who pay more than half of their monthly income on rent. When paying so much for rent, a family must often choose between food, transportation and other necessary monthly expenses. Unskilled workers performing necessary but low-wage jobs, retired and disabled people are typical low-income tenants.

Since the Great Recession, several factors have come together to create more demand for both rental homes and homes for sale than builders can produce. An increasing number of families relocating here to take advantage of better job opportunities and a rising number of families having kids and households coming together have left us with rapidly rising rents and rapidly rising home prices.

Thankfully, this spring, Congress took significant steps to meet Utah’s and America’s growing housing affordability challenges by passing the omnibus spending bill, including the first expansion in 10 years of the housing credit. Now is the time for Congress to build on this momentum by helping Hatch to get the full bill across the finish line.

An essential tool for building and preserving privately owned affordable rental housing in Utah and across the country, the housing credit funds large amounts of the cost to develop rental housing and enables rents affordable to low- and very low-income people. A public-private partnership, the housing credit is smart policy with a long track record of success in tapping the entrepreneurial spirit and accountability of the private sector for the public good. Since it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the housing credit has helped to create 3 million affordable rental homes nationwide, including more than 26,000 across Utah. Their development has generated nearly $3 billion in local income and more than $1 billion in taxes that are invested back into our communities statewide.

This spring, Hatch and his colleagues showed that Congress can meaningfully begin to address our housing needs. By strengthening further a proven policy like the housing credit, they will do even more to ensure families, seniors and veterans in Utah and across the country can afford a place to call home and that our communities enjoy the economic and health benefits that go along with it.

Grant S. Whitaker

Grant S. Whitaker is president & CEO of Utah Housing Corporation and past president of the National Council of State Housing Agencies.