Henry Matthews: I’m a social worker, and it’s clear we need better housing solutions

Utah, known for its beautiful natural landscapes and thriving economy, is grappling with a crisis threatening its foundation: housing instability.

A state once known for its affordability and quality of life is now seeing a growing number of its residents facing the harsh reality of housing insecurity. We must address this issue with urgency for our communities’ well-being and the state’s future prosperity.

The roots of Utah’s housing instability crisis can be linked to several factors, including rapid population growth, stagnant wages, and a shortage of affordable housing units. According to a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, the state’s population is projected to grow by over 1 million by 2065 (Utah population to increase by 2.2 million people through 2060).

This population surge has increased the demand for housing, driving up prices and leaving many residents struggling to find homes they can afford. In addition to population growth, Utah has seen wages remain primarily stagnant, failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living. A study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that 19% of Utah’s renter households are incredibly low-income, with 73% of low-income households struggling with severe cost burdens.

This highlights the disparity between difficulty affording rent in today’s society and increasing housing costs. The shortage of affordable housing units adds to these challenges. According to the Gardner Institute, there is a deficit of over 28,400 affordable housing units in the state. This shortage has created a competitive housing market where low and middle-income families are often priced out of stable living conditions, pushing them to the brink of homelessness.

Housing instability doesn’t just affect individuals and families; it has far-reaching consequences for the entire community. Children experiencing homelessness face barriers to education, hindering their chances for a successful future. Individuals without stable housing often struggle with physical and mental health issues, increasing the burden on healthcare systems. Businesses can suffer as employees dealing with housing instability may face challenges in maintaining stable employment.

A multi-pronged approach is needed. First and foremost, we must increase the supply of affordable housing units. State and local governments should work together to incentivize the construction of affordable housing developments, streamline permitting processes, and allocate funding to support these initiatives. Additionally, it’s crucial to explore innovative housing solutions, such as tiny homes, co-housing, and community land trusts, to create diverse options for individuals and families seeking stable housing.

Boosting wages and promoting job growth is another essential component of tackling housing instability. Utah must support policies encouraging employers to provide fair wages and benefits to their workers, allowing them to afford housing without the constant threat of eviction.

Lastly, investment in wraparound services is vital to help those currently experiencing housing instability. Programs that provide mental health counseling, job training, and substance abuse treatment can be instrumental in preventing homelessness and helping individuals and families regain stability.

These solutions matter to me because working as a case manager and navigating our housing situation with our homeless and incarcerated population was increasingly difficult. It made me realize how insurmountable and stressful it must be for our low-income families in our community. It was my job to research and navigate housing, even then I would be clueless at times. Seeing firsthand the difficulty my clients faced with applications, regulations, and limited availability empowered me to advocate for them then and now.

Utah’s housing instability crisis is a pressing issue that demands immediate attention and action. By addressing the root causes, increasing the supply of affordable housing, raising wages, and providing comprehensive support services, we can create a more stable and prosperous future for all Utahns. It’s not just a matter of policy; it’s a matter of service as social workers. Our job is to help people in need and address social problems. Utah’s government and its citizens can and must lead the way in finding solutions to this crisis and ensuring everyone has a safe and stable place to call home.

Henry Matthews

Henry Matthews has been a social worker for four years and previously worked at the nonprofit First Step House as a case manager for three years. He is in the University of Utah’s masters of social work program.