Opinion: As a commuter who can’t afford to live in Salt Lake City, I still deserve to be heard

I am limited in my ability to create change in my community because I cannot afford housing here.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rush hour traffic on I-15 in Farmington on Wednesday, April 22, 2020.

Affordable housing was a top budget priority for Utah’s state and local officials this year. This was reflected by the $17 million the Legislature earmarked for affordable housing in the 2024-2025 Budget and the nearly $20 million for affordable housing programs in Salt Lake City’s 2023-2024 Fiscal Year Budget.

Despite the steps local elected officials are taking toward remedying the affordable housing crisis, there is still a massive gap in affordable housing in Salt Lake. According to Housing SLC, over half of all renters in Salt Lake City are cost-burdened, meaning they spend over 30% of their income on housing costs. Additionally, housing prices in Salt Lake City have outgrown wages since 2005.

There’s one issue surrounding affordable housing that isn’t spoken about enough: A shortage of affordable housing limits people’s ability to make change in their community.

I commute to Salt Lake five days a week for school and work. I attend the University of Utah as a full-time graduate student. I’m very involved on campus, serving on the Public Affairs and Global Enterprise (PAGE) Executive Committee as the vice president of diversity and representing the student perspective as a member of the JEDI Advisory Council. Additionally, I work in a position at a local nonprofit that serves historically marginalized and underserved communities in the Salt Lake area. I am passionate about influencing positive change regarding policy that affects me and the people around me. I am proud to consider myself a part of the Salt Lake community. However, due to a lack of affordable housing, I still live in my parents’ basement in West Point.

I am limited in my ability to create change in my community because I cannot afford housing here. I worry that my voice matters less to elected officials because I’m not a constituent, and I lose credibility with community leaders because I am not a resident. Despite being a part of the community, I’m not allowed to vote in Salt Lake elections or run for local office. This isn’t a flaw with our democratic system; the founders intentionally institutionalized local government as a system that served those who lived in the local community. I am not trying to entirely dismantle the status quo for representative democracy. However, it feels unfair that I am limited in my ability to affect change in my community because I can’t afford housing here.

My experience is not unique; many people live outside of Salt Lake and commute daily to work. According to U.S. Census data, more than half of workers in Salt Lake County commuted from another county.

While state and local officials have taken significant steps to address the affordable housing crisis, a glaring gap remains between the supply and demand for affordable housing in Salt Lake City. The allocation of funds towards affordable housing initiatives is a step in the right direction. Yet, the stark reality is that many individuals, like myself, continue to face housing insecurity, hindering our ability to fully engage and effect change within the communities we are deeply connected to.

This phenomenon not only exacerbates economic disparities, but also limits the ability of individuals to actively participate in shaping the policies and decisions that impact their lives. This issue extends beyond mere inconvenience; it is a systemic barrier that undermines the principles of democracy and community engagement.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon policymakers, community leaders and residents alike to prioritize affordable housing as a fundamental aspect of community development. This means increasing funding for existing affordable housing programs and implementing comprehensive policies that promote equitable access to housing for all.

Furthermore, we should consider changes to local electoral systems that ensure fair representation for all residents, regardless of their housing status. This could include expanding voting rights to include residents who contribute to the fabric of a community, even if they do not own property within its boundaries.

Ultimately, addressing the shortage of affordable housing is not just a matter of economic policy; it is a moral imperative that speaks to the very essence of democracy. We must recognize the broader implications of the affordable housing crisis beyond its economic impact. It is about equity, social justice and the fundamental right of every individual to have a voice in shaping the future of their community, regardless of their housing situation.

(Photo courtesy of Alex Yoder) Alex Yoder

Alex Yoder has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Weber State University and is studying for a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Utah. He is also working toward an urban planning graduate certificate.

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