Homelessness is unquestionably tragic for those experiencing it, many of whom are children and most of whom had very difficult lives even before they lost housing. Most homeless people are living out of their cars or sheltered in temporary accommodations and so, out of sight, are easily forgotten.
But, if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us view the more visible unsheltered homelessness as a public nuisance. Salt Lake City’s west side residents are rightfully irritated at the influx of it in their neighborhoods. The encampments on the banks of the Jordan River don’t add to the scenery regardless of whether they are sanctioned or illegal.
High-quality research on homelessness is hard to come by, in part because of data quality issues. What researchers broadly agree on is twofold. First, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is far better for cities to prevent an entry into homelessness, or at least make it a very short spell, than to deal with the high costs of people that are chronically homeless.
Second, at the city level, high housing costs and low vacancy rates are robustly associated with homelessness, far more so than temperate weather or a lax policing climate. Sure, homeless people have higher rates of substance abuse and more mental health issues. But Kentucky and West Virginia have an awful lot of drug addicts and not much homelessness, in large part because they have cheap housing options.
Homelessness prevention means the city needs to lower housing costs, especially for low- and moderate-income households. That means increasing housing supply, particularly of missing middle housing such as townhomes, triplexes and row houses.
Fortunately, the city is sitting on more than $1 billion worth of well-located land it can readily sell to create more housing and fund emergency rental assistance. That land is the city’s municipal golf courses, spanning approximately 900 acres according to the most recent report available.
The sale of just one of the golf courses would free up at least 100 acres worth approximately $100 million if appropriately zoned. One hundred acres of land can easily support 1,000 small and modestly-sized housing units. Relative affordability could be achieved through mandates on unit size and design review of construction standards.
Furthermore, the $100 million could be used to create an emergency rental trust fund that could be administered by the Utah Department of Workforce Services. That money would generate approximately $5 million a year in interest that could be used for emergency rental assistance. It’s not enough money to help all low-income renters in Salt Lake City, but access to a few thousand dollars in an emergency can make a real difference to the people most likely to end up homeless.
The city also needs to legalize missing middle housing in most of the city following similar initiatives by Spokane and Minneapolis. While allowing home builders to build smaller-sized, less expensive homes on land currently only zoned for single-family homes will not immediately lower housing costs, it will over time keep our housing stock affordable to moderate-income households. Moderate-income households will then encroach less on the housing stock available for our lowest-income households who are most at risk of becoming homeless.
Mitigation strategies such as tiny home villages and sanctioned campgrounds are great. But unless we get at the root cause of the problem – that too many residents are a missed paycheck or critical car repair away from not being able to pay their rent – we won’t make real progress.
Andra Ghent is a professor of finance at the University of Utah and a member of the Salt Lake City Planning Commission.