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Officials look for solutions to housing shortage

Sep 13, 2018 11:17AM ● Published by Jana Klopsch

One housing solution, experts say, is transit oriented development, such as this apartment complex (in the distance and now built) in Midvale, right across from a Trax station. (City Journals)

By Lana Medina | l.medina@mycityjournals.com

Housing costs are rising throughout the Salt Lake Valley, and both renters and buyers are struggling to manage. But it’s low-income families that are getting hit the worst. 

In a recent study by the University of Utah Gardner Institute, Utah’s housing unaffordability crisis was found to be reaching alarming levels as a rising population comes up against a shortage of new apartments and homes for sale.

While high-income and middle-class families are paying more for housing, low-income families are turning to subsidized programs, only to find a years-long waiting list.

“I think that happens often, the people who need the housing, they don’t get it. I think it’s frustrating for all involved,” said Janice Kimball, executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake.

Kimball explained the Housing Authority manages a program called Section 8, which helps place low-income families with subsidized rent. There are 1,200 units of affordable housing, but the waiting list to get one of those apartments or homes is six to seven years. There’s another public housing program that has another additional 600 units with a shorter waiting list — only two to four years, Kimball said.

“Think about the average family who calls us with an emergency who gets told that,” Kimball said. “We’re a great long-term solution but we don’t have any short-term solutions.”

In Salt Lake City, the Housing and Neighborhood Development office is spearheading a five-year plan called Grow SLC, which is dedicated to addressing the problem with affordable housing, specifically for low-income families.

“In Salt Lake City, we have a gap of about 7,500 units for those making about $20,000 a year — that’s anyone working a minimum wage job,” explained Melissa Jensen, director of Housing and Neighborhood Development in Salt Lake. “In Salt Lake City, you have to make $20 an hour to afford a $950 apartment. That’s $20 an hour just to find an apartment in the city.”

Jensen said half the people in the city are paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, and one-quarter are paying more than 50 percent.

But the city has a plan. 

Within the next one to two years, the city plans to have three permit-supportive housing buildings — that’s 262 units — available for low-income housing applications, specifically designed to help people struggling with substance abuse disorders or mental health issues.

Jensen said over the next two years, they also plan to have an additional 1,000 units that are affordable at different rates. For example, some would be available for low-income families and others available at market rate.

But while that helps Salt Lake City, the rest of the state is facing the same affordable housing crisis.

In the last legislative session, Utah lawmakers developed a housing commission to discuss the current housing shortage and rising costs to find a solution. 

But Jonathan Hardy, division director for housing and community development for state of Utah, says the problem is vast.

One of the solutions on the table is transit-oriented development.

“If we can produce more housing within half a mile of a transit stop, we can reduce affordability,” Hardy explained. “Some households might not have to have a second vehicle. They might pay more in housing if they don’t have to pay as much for transportation.”

But Hardy admits while it may cut down on some housing costs, it won’t solve the problem for many families. 

Hardy says the easiest way to solve the low-income housing crisis is subsidized housing, but it’s an expensive solution.

For low-income families at a 30 percent area income, it costs $175,000 per housing unit, Hardy explained.

“That’s the reality. (For each) new apartment creation is $200,000 per unit. That’s what we’re seeing along the Wasatch Front,” Hardy said, explaining that low-income families would pay the remainder in rental costs every year.

Kimball said the families who need those low-income housing units don’t need them forever.

“Thirty-eight percent of the people on public housing stay less than two years. Another 25 percent stay less than five years,” Kimball explained.

But with housing costs rising, it’s unclear if those numbers will rise as well.

Jensen says affordable housing is important for everyone, because even families who are making higher than minimum wage can struggle with unemployment or other emergencies that force them to seek low-income housing.

“Affordable housing is really everyone at some point in their life, whether they’ve lost a job, whether they’ve just graduated and living in their parent’s basement, or whether they’re elderly,” Jensen explained. “People jump to a conclusion. But it’s for everyone.”

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