This week the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General released an audit of Utah’s Homeless Services System that was both odd and flawed. What made the audit odd was that it made no effort to estimate the need for homeless services in Utah and whether that need was growing or shrinking. How do you evaluate the adequacy of a system of services if you do not begin by analyzing the size of the problem those services are supposed to address?
Simple math would predict that the need for homeless services is exploding in Utah. Between 2010 and 2020 the total population for our state grew by 18.4%. If we assume the share of the population needing homeless services remained stable during that time, then we can assume that the need for homeless services would have grown by 18.4%.
However, it is very unlikely that the share of the population needing homeless services was stable between 2010 and 2020. Research from Seattle shows that an increase in the average rent price in a city of $100 per month will lead to a 15% increase in homelessness in that city. Additional research shows that when average rents go above 32% of the median renter household income, the share of the population that can be projected to become homeless will increase dramatically.
We have crossed that threshold in Salt Lake County. Between 2010 and 2018, the average rent in Salt Lake County increased by 42% and the average share of renter household income going toward rent increased from 27% to more than 30%. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average rent in Salt Lake County has increased by an additional 23%. No one should be surprised that a growing number of people cannot afford to pay the rent when prices are increasing that much faster than wages or inflation.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor General’s decision to ignore the impact of rising population and rents on the need for homeless services makes the audit odd. What makes it flawed is that it proceeds to criticize the quality of the existing services despite this huge hole in in their analysis. Homeless shelters are too full because people are staying in them for too long. Supportive housing for people with disabilities is inadequate because people live in it for several years without moving out. Do the auditors really want to have time limits for living in shelters or supportive housing for people with disabilities?
To their credit, the auditors do spend time talking about how the number of people who are sleeping in shelters or sleeping outside in Utah is lower than in our neighboring states. The share of the population experiencing homelessness is more than twice as high in Nevada than it is in Utah. California’s incidence of homelessness is four times higher than Utah’s.
However, the audit talks about Utah having the lowest incidence of homelessness in the Western United States as if it were just a stroke of luck. Utah has a lower incidence of homelessness than states with slower rates of population growth and lower average rents. Could it be that our investments in things like rapid rehousing assistance for families with children and supportive housing for people with disabilities is working? You will never get the answer to that question by reading the odd and flawed audit produced this week.
Bill Tibbitts is deputy executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, Salt Lake City.