If there is one thing we should have learned about the ongoing shame of homelessness in Utah, it is that it is a large, complex problem that requires a big, comprehensive solution. That it isn’t going to be solved by small cash donations and hand-me-down baby shoes.
Those things are good, of course. Gov. Spencer Cox made that point Tuesday when he dropped in on a shelter for homeless families and made a show of concern. He was joined by Pamela Atkinson, whose tireless advocacy over many years has made her the kindly face of the homeless problem in Utah.
Cox announced that he had donated $10 — yes, two digits — on his personal Utah income tax form to the state’s Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund and encouraged everyone else to do the same. He also came bearing a gift of children’s clothing.
Again, not useless. But not much, especially from the chief executive of a state that has been trying to solve homelessness by, depending on its mood, ignoring it, punishing it, bulldozing it, collecting it, dispersing it, victim-shaming it and off-loading it on private charities, local government and overwhelmed activists.
The real advancement in this area came Wednesday afternoon, as legislative leaders joined with stars of the state’s significant philanthropic community to announce the dedication of $730 million in private money, most of it aimed at preserving the existing stock of relatively affordable housing rather than stand by and watch more buildings get knocked down to make room for the bumper crop of luxury apartment blocks the Salt Lake Valley can’t seem to get enough of.
Gail Miller, head of the Larry H. Miller Group, and Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes led the effort.
House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams were among lawmakers on hand to announce the state will chip in another $50 million toward the same goal.
Another indication that the Legislature is showing some signs of understanding is a bill that would create a new state office Office of Homeless Services, headed by an official who would oversee all aspects of the problem, convene a council of experts and stakeholders, report directly to the governor and start with a grubstake of money that would start to make up for the state’s sorry underinvestment in its new service centers.
There are parallel measures to push local governments to make more room for affordable housing and for the state to leverage taxpayers money with contributions from businesses and philanthropists toward such useful moves as preserving and upgrading existing housing and mediating landlord-tenant disputes.
It would help to recognize that homelessness is not the problem so much as it is the most obvious, and heart-breaking, symptom.
Even in a state with low unemployment, such as Utah, wages are low, housing is expensive, landlords have tenants over a financial and legal barrel, services for the mentally ill and addicted are hard to find and harder to pay for, educational opportunities flow most freely to people who already are in the fast lane of upward mobility.
Readers of The Salt Lake Tribune have seen the good work from The Utah Investigative Journalism Project documenting the many laws and practices that put renters into an inescapable financial spiral, to the benefit of landlords who have considerable influence in the Legislature. The result, too often, is hard-working people who not only can’t save up for a downpayment on a home, they can’t even avoid the street.
A new report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, meanwhile, lays out how the primary political factor in the ongoing shortage of affordable housing — the fear that high-density development will undermine the value of nearby single-family homes — is not born out by the facts. A generation of people who value lively, walkable, multi-use neighborhoods means that homes near new apartment complexes actually appreciate in value, even faster than homes where no such projects are nearby.
That doesn’t mean that high-density development doesn’t bring with it some infrastructure needs. Streets, transit, schools, utilities, etc., do have to follow. It means that local government has to plan and developers have to pull their weight. It also means pressure from some quarters of the Legislature to use the housing shortage as an excuse for undercutting cities’ ability to enforce everything from impact fees to building codes should be regarded with some suspicion.
The most important thing to remember is that, whatever structure we use, however we draw the box chart and allocate the responsibilities, any system that is as seriously underfunded as previous attempts have been will fail. Again.