Con Psarras: Paving over golf courses won’t help Utah’s homeless

Homelessness is caused by more than just a shortage of land to build houses on.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Golfers at Salt Lake City's Glendale Golf Course on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

The suggestion that Salt Lake City should sell off a public golf course or two in order to free up land for development of affordable residential units – perhaps along the lines of old-school urban housing projects – seems more like an exercise in faculty lounge musing than well-reasoned strategy.

The notion, floated in a recent Salt Lake Tribune commentary by a University of Utah finance professor who is also a member of the city’s planning commission, seems at first blush an idea worth contemplating. That’s even though it appears to reflect a recent trend toward outward disdain among some in city government toward golf, golf courses and golfers.

To be sure, the best public use for golf properties, in times of housing shortages and strains on water supplies, is a legitimate subject for study, but that’s a discussion for another day.

As to the issue of affordable housing, the lack thereof is indeed a factor in rates of homelessness. Although, its proportionate weight as a controlling factor varies from one jurisdiction to another, depending on a host of complicated social and economic factors.

The author of the golf course liquidation idea asserts that states with cheaper housing have proportionately smaller homeless populations, citing Kentucky and West Virginia as examples. However, if one wants to cherry-pick the data, there are several states with lower housing costs than Utah that suffer higher rates of homelessness. South Dakota and New Mexico are examples.

For years, homeless policy initiatives have been dominated by the dogma of “Housing First,” the premise that getting homeless people into housing as soon as possible is the most effective way of addressing the problem. Well, yes, the lack of housing is the definition of homeless.

But there is a segment of the homeless population, mainly among the chronically homeless, that resists sheltering. They are the long-time homeless whom outreach veterans will tell you are particularly challenging subjects for public and private assistance in finding stability and domicile. It’s naive to think that many in that category will race to file an application for a rent-subsidized flat on the former Forest Dale Golf Course.

For that group, policies should reflect a compassionate realization that permanent housing may not always be a viable alternative. The establishment of regulated camping districts, as advocated by some here in Salt Lake City and in use in other metro areas, would be far more effective in removing that portion of the homeless population from their ad-hoc camp sites on city parking strips. It is not a humane community that allows a disturbing number of un-housed people to perish every winter on frozen sidewalks.

If selling golf courses is indeed the answer, then let’s do it. But the finance professor’s arguments lack context and detail. She asserts a golf course sale could generate $100 million to go toward building 1,000 affordable homes, factoring in what she refers to as “mandates on unit size and design review of construction standards.”

Would these units have to be built below current standards? Is a 1,000 enough? Too many? How much public subsidy are we talking about? The city is already spending considerable sums to encourage and subsidize affordable housing within the framework of the real estate industry’s existing market.

The underpinning of the golf course idea is the dubious assumption that the principal reason for the lack of affordable housing in Salt Lake County is the shortage of land to build upon.

The housing and homeless problems are conjoined and serious. They deserve more sophisticated deliberation than driving by a golf course and asking, “What if?”

Con Psarras

Con Psarras is a retired journalist and educator who admittedly recreates on city golf courses.