Building a Better Salt Lake City | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

February 26, 2020 News » Cover Story

Building a Better Salt Lake City 

An affordable housing crisis looms as Utah families struggle to find shelter.

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As humans, we all share some basic needs. Food and shelter top the list of short-term necessities, but in Salt Lake City, finding a place to call home is, well, complicated. Areas with large populations and limited space always have challenges. But the failure of a bustling city to offer affordable housing can stifle growth and opportunity, even in communities as spacious and well-planned as the Utah capital.

Not being able to afford to live where you work has far-reaching consequences and community impacts. Where you live determines much about your quality of life, including the education your children receive, the community services available to your family, and the outsized impact your commute has not just on your time but on the local environment. Yes, I'm looking at all those lanes of stalled traffic on Interstate 15 every evening, pumping out emissions as thousands of commuters inch along to their affordable three-bedroom home in Draper.

Lack of affordable housing forces longer commutes that place stress on infrastructure and worsen air quality. Bottom line: Communities flourish when people can afford to live close to where they work. Contrary to preconceived notions about urban sprawl, studies have shown affordable housing developments provide healthier, safer neighborhoods in cities across America.

Salt Lake City's new mayor, Erin Mendenhall, spearheaded the issue of affordable housing while on the Salt Lake City Council and continues to see efforts to diversify housing options as pivotal to sustainable growth.

"The issue of affordable housing is real and it absolutely will continue to be a priority for me as mayor of Salt Lake City," Mendenhall tells City Weekly. "Half of the renters in our city are paying more than 30% of their income for rent, while homeowners and renters living on fixed incomes or earning low wages are being squeezed out of our neighborhoods, and too many young people who grow up here cannot afford to stay."

And it's not just residents that bear the brunt of a city's affordable housing crisis. It's also employers and small businesses that struggle to attract employees and pay livable wages. When workers have affordable housing options, businesses can balance the need to pay a living wage alongside supporting the continued growth and expansion that drives a state's economic engine.

Some folks conflate the issue with the very visible homeless population downtown. Mendenhall agrees that a lack of affordable housing is a significant contributor to housing instability. She cites national research that when average households pay more than 30% of their income on rent, it increases housing instability. When rental costs reach 32%, homelessness can increase sharply.

"So yes," Mendenhall agrees, "there is definitely a correlation between the availability of affordable housing and homelessness and at the most basic level, the solution to homelessness is housing."

But affordable housing isn't confined to those forced out onto the streets due to poverty and difficult circumstances. Although homelessness and affordable housing are closely intertwined, it's not just those in extreme poverty that get caught in the crunch. Even Utah families with modest incomes are struggling to find shelter they can afford.

While Salt Lake City has experienced an enviable economy for decades, it comes with steady population growth and, unfortunately, a paltry minimum wage. Despite one of the highest rates of residential construction in the nation, Utah continues to experience a mismatch between the type and cost of housing units available and the income levels of renters. In fact, Utah has the 10th worst rate in the United States of affordable housing for those in "extreme poverty."

Utah state senator and Democratic minority caucus leader Derek Kitchen says the shortage is of vital concern not only for his Salt Lake City district but the state as a whole. "Salt Lake City is growing so fast," Kitchen says. "We are seeing people from all over the state relocate to more urban areas, and as the capital and economic engine of the state, Salt Lake City is naturally seeing a lot of this growth."

Kitchen also says the crisis is compounded by other issues, like a stagnant minimum wage. "Even though we do have a strong economy and low unemployment, we are not seeing wages keep up with the cost of living," he says. "Housing is an issue of population growth, but also wage stagnation in our working residents."

If we want to build a better Salt Lake City for everyone, we'll need to break ground on more affordable housing solutions and get a better grasp on the numbers behind the crisis.

Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen - COURTESY UTAH SENATE
  • Courtesy Utah Senate
  • Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen

The Affordable Housing Crunch in a Nutshell
Whether you can afford housing is a bit more complicated than cobbling together rent money at the end of the month. In order to exist, we need lots of other things besides shelter. Food, clothing, transportation and, increasingly, the tools of technology. And none of those come free.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), your housing is affordable if your rent is 30% or less than your income, allowing you additional bandwidth to afford other necessities. Anyone who pays more than 30% of their income on housing would be considered "cost-burdened." This definition holds true whether you're crammed into a modest townhouse in Midvale or living large on a third of an acre lot on the East Bench.

Across the United States, Americans spend an average of 37% of their income on housing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Generally, about a third of renters and homeowners struggle to pay rent or their mortgage at rates that are proportional to their incomes. While Salt Lake City has a low percentage of the population that is severely cost-burdened (5.9%), the rate of those who are moderately cost-burdened is quite high. Nearly 15% of city residents are paying between 30-50% of their income on housing.

Salt Lake City is by no means the frontier of the affordable housing crisis. Larger urban hubs like New York City and Los Angeles that routinely face affordable housing problems, have implemented measures over the years to control costs—including controversial methods like rent control. The federal government also funds programs across the nation aimed at subsidizing affordable housing. For the purposes of federal funding, affordable housing is defined as 80% or more of the units in a building listed below market rent or set at 30% of the renter's income.

For families struggling to pay the rent, several kinds of subsidized housing options are available. Here are just a few of the affordable housing solutions you'll find in Salt Lake City and in cities across the country:

HUD Housing: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development runs this housing assistance program in partnership with local housing authorities across the nation. Housing that falls into this category is typically federally owned, and tenants must make below 80% of the local AMI (area median income) to qualify.

HUD's Section 8: Instead of federally owned properties, this program subsidizes renters who make below 50% of the AMI in securing private residences, including apartments and houses.

Other public housing programs: Various cities run their own housing programs through the local housing authority, though they might also receive federal and state funding. The qualifications might differ from HUD's requirements.

LIHTC units: Low Income Housing Tax Credits is a HUD program that encourages private developers to build low-income housing in areas of need by providing tax credit incentives.

Other solutions include PSH (permanent supportive housing) for those transitioning out of homelessness and SROs (single room occupancy) for students or aging and disabled populations that share common rooms.

This myriad of affordable housing options pieces together solutions to subsidize those in extreme poverty, but many programs fail to catch those in need, like families with moderate to low incomes that fall somewhere in the middle.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall - ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón
  • Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall

The State of Affordable Housing in Salt Lake City
First off, to understand the source of the affordable housing crisis, it helps to crunch some numbers. Don't worry. We'll do the math but pay attention in case there's a test later.

A cursory inspection of the state's housing market appears to signal all is well. Every year, more than 10,000 new households are set up in Utah, while nearly 13,500 new housing units also become available. Sounds like we've got room to grow, right? Not so fast.

Affordable housing isn't just about volume. It's also about having the right options that families can afford. This is where the numbers get sticky. For instance, of the 262,740 rental housing units in Utah in 2017 that were affordable for the 183,220 households that earn $5,000 or less per month, nearly half were held by people making more than $5,000 a month. In the simplest terms, the housing that many moderate to low-income families can afford, is already filled by those who make more than them. The statewide problem is further compounded by a focus on single-family homes that leaves a growing rental market behind.

This housing mismatch is the crux of the problem that Salt Lake City and Utah at-large face. There is a lack of affordable rental units available for folks in a certain income bracket. This shortage is worsened by the absence of affordable housing in key areas of opportunity on the east side of the city.

In 2017, some 276,710 Utah households rented housing. Of those, about 42% have a household income of less than 50% of the state's area median income (AMI) and are considered very low-income. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of Utah's renters qualify as extremely low-income.

In other words, we've got a fairly large portion of the population that needs to rent housing but is somewhat or severely cost-burdened. While this shortage is more drastic in Salt Lake City, it's certainly not a problem confined to the city and county. In Morgan, Grand, Iron and Washington counties, average rent already exceeds 30% of the county median income.

To give you an idea of the severity of the crisis, for every 26.9 affordable housing units that became available in 2017, there were 100 extremely low-income households who needed them.

That's why in 2017, the Salt Lake City Council voted unanimously to adopt a plan that provided low-interest loans to developers who were willing to invest in affordable housing. Mendenhall led the initiative and was pivotal in finding and securing the funding.

While some of the money allotted to change SLC's affordable housing landscape got lapped up quickly, it was a struggle to get developers to bite on the $4.5 million in incentives to build more reasonably priced homes in east-side neighborhoods. There are a few reasons, including the high cost of land and a lack of construction labor that drives up the cost of building projects and cuts developers' profit margins.There are currently 92 low-income housing complexes within city limits.

Mendenhall says part of the problem was not only the cost but the size of the parcels available for development in high-opportunity areas. However, she says those areas remain critical to the success of affordable housing development.

"The city's 'Areas of Opportunity,' which are geographical locations that provide conditions that expand a person's likelihood for social mobility, have been incorporated in the city's five-year housing plan Growing SLC, as well as the City's housing investment priorities," Mendenhall explains. "These areas are a key priority as we look to ensure the creation of opportunity in underserved neighborhoods or conversely create access to neighborhoods considered 'Areas of Opportunity,' where residents have access to jobs, health care, education, transportation and other amenities."

How Utah's Stagnate Minimum Wage Feeds the Shortage
The affordable housing crisis is a complex issue that's closely related to other statewide concerns. The most prominent is Utah's abysmal minimum wage. Set at $7.25 in 2008 to align with the federal minimum wage, Utah's wages have failed to keep pace with inflation and the cost of living. While 29 other states have independently passed legislation to raise the minimum wage, Utah's GOP-controlled Legislature has refused to do so.

Let's look at what making Utah's minimum wage means in practical terms. Two of the state's most popular industries are food service and retail, followed closely by education. However, these industries have notoriously low salaries. If you're employed as a barista in one of downtown's dozens of hip coffee shops or eateries, you can expect to make just above $1,000 a month working full-time at minimum wage. Yet the average monthly rent for an apartment here is $1,125 a month.

You're probably beginning to see how the math works out and why so many folks live paycheck to paycheck. Who can afford to save money when most food service workers in Utah pay nearly all of their monthly income on housing?

What about professions like teaching that require more education and should pay better salaries? If you're a public school teacher in Salt Lake City, your median yearly income is $54,763. This salary places you nearly $20,000 below the average Utah metropolitan income of $72,200. What does that mean on a monthly basis? It translates into making less than $5,000 a month, which means you're part of the moderately cost-burdened group that bears the brunt of the housing shortage.

For too many residents, the math simply doesn't add up. Utah Department of Workforce Services housing program manager Jess Peterson, whose team is currently compiling their 2019 report, confirms that the city and state as a whole continue to face an affordable housing crisis.

Despite some efforts by the city to increase housing units, those measures haven't had time to be effective and the forecast looks largely the same as it did in 2017. While enough total housing is available, there are far too few affordable units with an estimated deficit of about 46,000 units statewide. As Peterson states, "We don't have a housing crisis. We have an affordable housing crisis."

Breaking Ground on Solutions
Several solutions are already on the table—both at the state and local level. In December, the Utah Housing Corp. board of trustees awarded 2020 tax credits for 531 low-income units and 18 market-rate units that include the following affordable housing projects:

• Project Open III, Salt Lake City
• Central West Apartments, Salt Lake City
• Hunter Hollow, West Valley City
• Blue Lakes, Grantsville
• Table Top Mountain, Richfield
• Gemini Meadows II, Cedar City
• Holley Haven Apartments, Clearfield
• Mountain View Apartments, Payson
• Eagle Heights Village II, Eagle Mountain
• Senior Living on Washington, Ogden
• 85 North Provo Senior, Provo

These incentives allow developers to take out smaller mortgage loans, enabling them to recoup their investment more quickly and charge lower rents.

The incentives the Salt Lake City Council created were also a step in the right direction. The high opportunity areas along the bench earmarked for funds finally got a developer late last year. Community Development Corp. of Utah will break ground this year on Richmond Flats, a 60-unit apartment project located near the city's border with Millcreek.

Former city council member Kitchen is encouraged by the progress but admits that development along the east side continues to be problematic. "The reality is that it's expensive to develop on the east side because of the cost of land. Three major determinants in the cost of development are (1) cost of land, (2) cost of labor and (3) cost of materials," he says. "All three of these are more expensive simply due to our growth rate."

Kitchen and his colleagues are working to not only leverage city-owned property for affordable housing projects but to encourage other nonprofit organizations such as the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to put their enormous land holdings to good use. Kitchen is also running a bill during the current legislative session that's a housing mitigation policy for the state. It's intended to prevent the loss of existing housing units, and modeled on the city's ordinance. He's also partnered across the aisle with Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, to change community incentives, as well as provide statewide funding toward additional developments.

While Salt Lake City is experiencing the worst of the housing shortage, Kitchen stresses that it's not just a local concern. "Keep in mind, affordable housing is no longer only an issue in Salt Lake City," he says. "Now, places like Lehi, Davis County, Moab and even St. George are feeling the housing crunch."

Besides the cost of the Millcreek project, much of the area is zoned for single-family homes. The entire valley has an abundance of single-family homes and the zoning laws have failed to keep pace with a changing market that now includes more renters.

While other cities have implemented measures like rent control, it's not currently an option for Salt Lake City. The state has a law on the books called the Local Rent Control Prohibition, which means that Utah cities can't enact any rent controls. An effort to remove that prohibition is rumored to be in the works for this year's legislative session, but most local experts agree it's unlikely. The Legislature sees such measures as government interference in the free market and aren't likely to relinquish control to local municipalities.

Still, Salt Lake City is clamoring for solutions. Mendenhall promises she'll continue to work to break ground on affordable housing options for local families. "I intend to work closely with the council and all city divisions to put policies in place that will remove barriers to residential development and increase the number and quality of housing units being built in our city," she says.

Mendenhall adds she'll advance the city's housing plan, incorporating 2019's Senate Bill 34 (Moderate Income Housing Amendments) options, supporting rental assistance and eviction-prevention programs, and working to remove barriers in the city code that prevent affordable housing. "The challenges we face as our population continues to grow can be difficult," she says. "But we have an opportunity to help ensure that we grow smartly, sustainably and in a way that benefits all of our residents."

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About The Author

Kaz Weida

Kaz Weida

Bio:
Weida is a freelance journalist, editor and photographer. Fueled by caffeine and a thirst for social justice, she covers issues like the #MeToo movement and gun control. You’ll find her hanging out on Twitter getting into what she calls “good trouble.”

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