SOUTH SALT LAKE — U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was in Utah Thursday to tour several facilities, including a $46 million mixed-use project under construction called the Hub of Opportunity.
Wearing a hard hat and a reflective safety vest, Carson walked through part of the 200,000-square-foot complex that will include 156 apartments and an employment training center for young adults with autism.
"It looks like the 22nd century," he said at one point, when shown a rendering of the planned Smith Family Foundation Sensory Room featuring lighting and textures designed to help calm and focus tenants with autism.
Built with $21 million in federal low-income housing tax credits as well as state, local and private funds, the five-story complex is scheduled to open next spring with 136 of the apartments priced for lower-income residents.
"It's being built with a lot of people with disabilities in mind as well as people with low and moderate income," Carson told reporters. "It's being done in such a way that it's beautifully done. It will fit in very well with market rates."
What he saw, Carson said, "kind of gets rid of a lot of the arguments" used to stop affordable housing. He said such public-private partnerships encourage upkeep and avoid the deterioration seen in federal public housing.
"I think that was extremely bad for the community and particularly for the people we were trying to assist," he said, describing a reorientation of the federal government as "not just maintaining people in programs."
The Hub of Opportunity "fits in very nicely with that because this is being designed in such a way that you really help people with autism spectrum disorders," he said, making "those people employable and able to fit into the general population."
A medical doctor who ran for president in 2016, Carson said there needs to be more education about what autism spectrum disorders are because "these are people who can work very well."
The complex is located in one of 46 designated federal "Opportunity Zones" in Utah, including 15 in Salt Lake County, where capital gains tax breaks are available under the 2017 income tax changes.
"Now, you have a very nice, long-term investment for people who are going to be extremely invested in making sure that it is successful," Carson said of projects in the zones.
Barriers also need to be removed by local governments to encourage more affordable housing, he said, citing regulations in Los Angeles mandating solar panels that add to the cost.
However, Carson noted that the added construction expense resulting from President Donald Trump's trade war with China "is a short-term issue that will have a long-term benefit. We have to look at the long term."
He praised what's being done in Utah.
"One of the things that's been encouraging here in Salt Lake is that the state, and the county and the city, have been willing to work with the developers," Carson said, for example, requiring fewer parking spaces at the complex.
"Recognizing that there were going to be a significant number of people here who probably would not be driving, they were able to work with them and not be hard-nosed about that," he said. "There is that spirit, I'm told."
Carson arrived in Utah Thursday morning and visited the Bud Bailey Apartments in Millcreek that opened in 2014 for formerly homeless families, refugees, youths who have aged out of foster care, and other low-income residents.
He also made a stop at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Welfare Square near downtown Salt Lake City before leaving to give a speech in Denver. Only his tour of the Hub of Opportunity was open to the news media.