SALT LAKE CITY — Prominent Utah philanthropists and legislative leaders announced that $50 million for affordable housing and homelessness initiatives set aside in the state budget will be multiplied to $730 million through community donations and investment.
Both homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing "have been challenges for the state for some time, but unfortunately they were exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told reporters during a news conference Wednesday in front of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Over the past 10 years, average home prices in the Beehive State have risen more than twice as fast as median income of residents, Wilson noted.
At the same time, homelessness remains a "critical" issue across the state, he said, emphasizing the need for leaders and residents to come together "to do something big."
"We know Utah is the No. 1 state for upward mobility," Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said.
But homelessness in Salt Lake City, the state's capital, shows that things are "not as bright as it should be," he said.
"When we come together, we can help fix the problem," according to Adams.
The hundreds of millions in funds from the state and private sector will go toward preserving existing affordable housing units, building new affordable housing and implementing the new homeless governance model proposed this session.
"In my opinion, this is the biggest commitment our Legislature has ever made toward homelessness and housing our most vulnerable. What a powerful statement that is. The powerful statement, think of it — the Legislature gives $50 million in additional funding toward homelessness and critical housing needs. That's a big deal," said Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes.
Preservation of existing units through the funding will be "key" due to the rising costs associated with building new units. The price of lumber has risen by $24,000 in recent months for the average house, Ivory said.
"This is killing us and making it difficult to deliver on any sort of affordable product," he said.
HB347, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, would create a central leader on homelessness and make other sweeping changes after Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study late last year identified several issues with the state's homeless services system. The bill passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday. It awaits a signature from Gov. Spencer Cox before becoming law.
Gail Miller, owner and chairwoman of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, said in her years of advocating for those experiencing homelessness, she's seen both "heartbreaking situations and "miraculous interventions."
"Homelessness is one of our state's most pressing issues. It's driven by a myriad of issues ranging from mental health, abuse, lack of education, unemployment, addiction, and sometimes just downright bad luck," she said.
Restructuring the state's homeless system will allow more input from philanthropists, Miller said, giving them more confidence in continuing to donate to the cause.
"This truly is one of our great examples of the Utah way," Miller said of the recent investments into helping the homeless community.