SALT LAKE CITY — An event held by Circle Salt Lake brought a panelist of individuals struggling with poverty and homelessness before community leaders and governing officials to discuss Utah’s affordable housing crisis on Thursday evening.
The event, held at The Friendly Neighborhood Senior Center, invited landlords, property managers, legislators, community leaders, service organizations and anyone interested in learning more to ask questions about the human experience of living in poverty. Circle Salt Lake hoped the event would contribute toward its goal of reducing poverty in Utah by 10 percent in 10 years.
“For a family of four, they are at 100 percent of the poverty level if their income is $24,600/year, so we want to help them get to 200 percent because that’s the beginning of being able to actually have stability,” Noelle Leiser, Circle Salt Lake coordinator, said. “We want to get them making at least $50,200/year.”
Circle Salt Lake has been a national initiative for more than 20 years, but the Salt Lake branch has chosen to focus its poverty-reduction efforts on creating and improving affordable housing.
In addition to attracting landlords and members of the workforce running housing and apartments, legislators and local governing officials also made it to the event. Among them were Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, Midvale Mayor Robert Hale, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville and Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.
“I believe there are multiple ways that the state can help address (the affordable housing problem),” Escamilla told KSL.com. She and others hoped to learn more about the issue and what areas most need to be addressed.
One problem with attempting to obtain housing that all of the panelists experienced was the cost of applying for housing. Jess Jackson, a participant, said that not only did she have to pay $30-50 per home that she applied to when looking for housing, she also had to pay an additional fee for her husband.
Her husband, who is disabled, is unable to work and as such cannot pay the fee himself. “We still have to come up with two application fees even though only one of us has an income,” Jackson explained.
The panelists agreed that when applying to housing, they generally had to apply four to six times. With two adults, the cost of applying for housing that many times can total $400-600.
Another common issue for the panelists included unexpected fees and penalties that were beyond what they could afford. “If you live paycheck to paycheck, and by that I mean you have literally five dollars in your account, and you get a $100 penalty because your employer couldn’t pay you in time that month…” Escamilla explained. “That penalty can literally stop you from being able to pay rent next month.”
Another panelist was struck with unexpected costs on top of her rent after she had already signed a lease on affordable housing. Kristie Thomas said that she spent time in the shelter, but the Road Home was able to help her move into an apartment without a job. “They did not tell me until the day before I was to sign my lease that I had a maintenance fee and had to pay their property taxes,” she said. She paid those fees but then was hit with even more. “I wasn’t informed until after I signed the lease that I had to pay for sewage, water and trash, which totaled $200 extra on top of my rent. Two-hundred dollars on top for a single parent is ridiculous.”
In addition to the struggle of paying extra fees, the panelists identified struggles with the quality of their living situation (bed bugs, plumbing issues and drug prominence) and the speed with which they are able to get into housing as common problems.
Kelsey Ivey, a parent who has been living with government assistance, added that it has been extremely hard for her to get off of food stamps and welfare after being on them. “I’m never getting ahead,” she said. “Every time I start making enough money my housing cost increases.”
Ivey doesn’t work full time because that would result in losing food stamps and government help and, without those benefits she can’t afford her housing or to feed her children, even with a full-time job. She added that she wishes there was a less damaging transition to becoming financially independent.
Escamilla said that she and other legislators have been working hard to make affordable housing better and more accessible. She hopes to continue that work as Salt Lake City mayor, for which she has entered the race for election in 2019. “I think the city has a role where you can holistically help people feel welcome in Salt Lake and raise a family with a high quality of life,” Escamilla concluded.
Circle Salt Lake hopes the event helped community members learn from one another and come up with solutions.