Opinion: Utah will only achieve housing justice if we prioritize people over profits

Gov. Spencer Cox’s plan to create 35,000 new starter homes is laudable, but will not solve Utah’s housing problems.

For years, Utah has attempted to ameliorate some of the many problems with our housing system and work towards housing justice — defined by the Urban Institute as affordable housing that promotes health, well-being and upward mobility.

Last year, I wrote a commentary about evictions in Utah and how state legislators wield too much power over many housing policies. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about landlord-tenant policies, eviction and real estate practices. Here is my new conclusion: We will only achieve housing justice if we prioritize people over profits.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s plan to create 35,000 new starter homes is laudable, but as a singular strategy will not solve Utah’s housing problems. A multi-pronged strategy is needed that builds starter homes while also increasing the supply of affordable rental units and preventing forced displacement of the most at-risk groups.

At least 35,000 extremely low-income Utah households qualify for HUD Section 8 housing vouchers but cannot receive assistance due to limited funding (extremely low-income means less than or equal to 30% of the Area Median Index, meaning these households earn $31,020 or less per year). In addition to investing in 35,000 new starter homes, Cox could create a state-funded housing voucher program to fill the gap left by HUD.

As reported by the Gardner Policy Institute, state-funded housing programs “provide targeted support for the lowest income and most difficult-to-reach special needs populations.” Utah could follow other states such as Massachusetts, where a state-housing voucher program has existed for 30 years.

My research team and I conducted a policy analysis of state eviction laws which found that unintentional or not, eviction policies are often written in a way that disadvantages the most at-risk groups. For example, to answer an eviction filing, tenants must respond online, a task which is nearly impossible for someone with poor vision, who may be unable to read and understand English or who lacks internet access. Utah might follow other states that pause eviction proceedings if the tenant has applied for rental assistance through the state or that require that eviction filings be presented to tenants in plain language.

As reported in the Utah Investigative Journalism Project in 2022, 40% of Utah state senators were involved in real estate development, property management, investments or legal practices. Thus, there are few incentives for legislators to change housing policies because our current housing system and eviction process profits them. We need additional state-based incentives for property owners and investors to maintain their affordable housing status after the expiration of their 15- or 30-year Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) contracts. Otherwise, when the affordability period expires and it is more profitable to discontinue affordable housing and charge market rate or higher for those same units, low-income households will be at-risk of displacement.

Take Holladay Hills apartments in Millcreek as an example. In November, KUTV reported that residents received notice in November that their leases would not be renewed. Now that the period of affordability has expired, the Holladay Hills owner will not maintain affordable housing status and will not renew leases. This means that 130 families, many of whom rely on affordable housing, are losing their homes. In mid-January, I was informed by Francisca Blanc, the co-director of Renters Justice Coalition, that more than 30 families still need to locate housing before the end of January.

I met recently with Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and the Promise Program Manager Kayla Mayers to discuss potential solutions to the Holladay Hills crisis. Some families have been relocated to Millcreek Meadows, another LIHTC property with an expiring affordability period, meaning that these tenants might face yet another displacement. And they are not alone. Per Francisca Blanc, over the next few years, it is expected that multiple apartment buildings will have expiring affordability periods and potentially 700 units could be at risk of losing their affordable housing status.

Research has shown that investor purchases of multifamily buildings are associated with increased evictions, fewer people of color living in that community, and increasing numbers of white tenants. In other words, by retaining ownership and increasing rents to market value or higher, the owner of Holladay Hills could essentially contribute to gentrification.

There is also a substantial body of research demonstrating that forced displacement and evictions are associated with homelessness, job loss, physical health issues, mental health issues (including suicide), living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, worse housing conditions and deepened poverty.

Without changes to housing policies, practices and programs, little progress will be made. Now is the time to make that priority decision.

Sara Bybee

Sara Bybee, PhD, LCSW, is an assistant professor of research in the College of Nursing at the University of Utah and studies the structural determinants of health affecting historically marginalized populations. She also is a member of the board of directors of the Renters Justice Coalition, a 501c(3) dedicated to promoting, advancing and empowering Utah’s renters.

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