SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's 2021 legislative session marked milestones in investments in affordable housing and sweeping changes to the homeless governance system, all meant to enact measurable improvements in two of the Beehive State's biggest issues.
The Legislature approved $50 million in funding to affordable housing initiatives and homelessness, which advocates described as a record in the state. Leaders with the private philanthropy community announced Wednesday those funds will be multiplied through private donations and investments to $730 million.
"Good things are taking place, and we're deploying innovative solutions and seeing positive impacts," Utah philanthropist and homeless advocate Gail Miller said.
Homeless system restructuring
While the state has made progress on homelessness issues, Miller said, "We are at a critical point to make sure that we don't take steps backward."
HB347, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, creates a central leader on homelessness and makes other major changes after a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study late last year identified several issues with the state's homeless services system. The bill creates a governor-appointed "state homeless coordinator" position, who will lead a new Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services and advise the governor about homelessness issues.
"The broad issue that this bill seeks to address is who's really in charge of trying to address the issues impacting our neighbors and friends experiencing homelessness. The goal is to help these people step out of homelessness and back into our community," Eliason recently told the House, explaining that it doesn't change the "makeup" of homeless services providers.
The homelessness coordinator could be hired "as soon as possible" under the bill, Eliason said Thursday.
Miller pointed to the Gardner Policy Institute report that she and other philanthropists helped fund, which identified some inefficiencies in the state's homeless resources system and called for a clear governance framework.
Jean Hill, a co-chairwoman of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness who also participated in the Gardner study, opposed the original version of the bill due to the power it gave the homelessness coordinator. But she said she "strongly support(s)" the final version.
"The study process was an important opportunity to review the many moving parts of homeless services governance and funding. We had in-depth discussions that helped dispel some misinformation and clarified the structure needed to more effectively render homelessness brief, rare and nonrecurring statewide. Thanks to the dedication and professionalism of all involved, we reached consensus across multiple areas," Hill said in a statement to the Deseret News.
She said she sees the coordinator "as someone who will be able to bring all of the necessary agencies and decision-makers together to ensure funding and policy decisions are data-driven and reflect best practices."
Hill noted she observed "quite a bit of misinformation among elected officials and others about proven service models," and she hopes the coordinator will provide "credible information" to everyone involved in homelessness governance to focus the state's efforts.
Under the current governance model, when things are going "great," everyone takes credit for it. But when things are going poorly, everyone "points the finger" at each other, according to Scott Howell, a former state legislator who works with the Pioneer Park Coalition.
He said that a central leader on the issue could help the state move toward more effective models for helping those experiencing homelessness get back on their feet.
The bill also creates the Utah Homelessness Council to include a member of the public with expertise in homelessness issues; state officials; a member of both the Utah House and Utah Senate; mayors of cities that host shelters; a religious leader; and someone who has been homeless and homeless service providers. The coordinator of the Office of Homeless Services will lead the council.
The new program will also use a more robust system for tracking clients across services — also known as a Homeless Information Management System — which will lead to more accountability among providers, Howell said, by tracking success metrics like clients going into substance use disorder treatment, finding jobs and other measures.
"Data should drive the decisions of policy and (money) appropriations, and every other industry in our world today uses that," Howell said.
HB347 also establishes the Utah Impact Partnership, allowing a coalition of private funders to participate in the decision-making process with the Utah Homelessness Council.
The philanthropic community and local governments will work to match the $15 million appropriated by the Legislature for homelessness this year, Miller said. The Utah Impact Partnership, which will be represented on the homeless council, will also place philanthropists in "coordination" with government, Miller said.
Eliason also recently said the bill will "hopefully bring some of those generous donors back to the table that have been reluctant for the past year or two to donate for this cause because they've been unsure about where those donations should be directed."
"We have strong leaders, kind hearts and unified vision in our state. ... This truly is one of our great examples of the Utah way," Miller said.
Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition, described the $35 million investment into affordable housing as a record in the state that's critically needed as many who work in industries like tourism and hospitality are unable to find affordable living situations.
"We don't have the infrastructure for people to be able to working in the communities," Rollins said.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the need for many, she said.
"We need to make sure that people have a place to live so they can maintain a job and maintain their children in the same school system. ... Because we're just seeing so many people rotate through apartments as well as school systems," Rollins said.
Some of the money committed by the Legislature for affordable housing will likely be used for long-term loans that would eventually be repaid by developers to the state, said James Wood, Ivory-Boyer Senior Fellow with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Much of the funding will go toward preserving existing affordable housing units. Often when projects or units age, developers or owners will do "rehab" to restore them and then put them back on the market at a higher price. Wood called the effort a "real infusion of dollars" into the program to prevent units from being lost for those who make lower incomes.
Some properties that sold recently — leading to evictions of their current occupants — could've been preserved for those tenants had developers known about them and had the opportunity to renovate them to keep them affordable, Rollins said.
House Speaker Brad Wilson on Wednesday noted that lack of homes priced for those looking to buy their first is a "real challenge in the state," requiring some Utah natives to move out of state.
"Over the past 10 years, average home prices here in the state of Utah have risen more than twice as fast as the median income of Utah residents. Like all of you, we appreciate time when home values rise, it's good for us ... but then we start thinking about, what are our kids, what are our grandkids going to do, and recognize that they will have to move away from the place that we live so that they can afford to buy a home," Wilson told reporters.
"There are families struggling with homelessness all across the state, from the top of the state to the bottom. ... Helping those in need here in Utah is absolutely the Utah way. So is addressing our challenges in a collaborative manner," Wilson said.
Affordable housing bills
- The Legislature also passed SB164, sponsored by Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, which will allow the state to conduct a surplus property inventory across counties, and figure out "what has a potential to fit this nexus" for affordable housing projects, Anderegg recently told a Senate committee.
"Our previous bills in affordable housing have focused on area median incomes of 50% up to 80% of area median income. And 80% is pretty much your market rate. If you're a renter, you're at 80% of area median income, that's just where it falls out," Anderegg told the Senate this week.
"But with our superheated market right now and the problems with finding housing, if all the analyses are correct and we really are anywhere near 45,000 units short of demand versus what supply is, the people getting pushed out, quite literally, those are the people that are 50% of area median income and below," he added.
"These are the people who quite literally are one life event away from being homeless."
The bill targets aid to those who make an area median income of between 30% and 50%, Anderegg said.
The bill will also establish an optional grant program for developers on surplus properties, as well as a pre-development grant in rural Utah. It also seeks to help those with low incomes who are getting evicted by giving them representation, as the state is seeing a large number of evictions.
Under the bill, real property could be granted to developers who plan to use at least 20% of the housing units for affordable housing — which means those units would be available only to those who make no more than 50% of the area median income.
The Legislature has committed $800,000 to funding the bill. The Department of Workforce Services will administer the program.
- Another bill this session, HB82, seeks to help with the affordable housing crisis by prohibiting municipalities and counties from establishing restrictions or requirements for certain accessory dwelling units with limited exceptions. The final version of the bill, which passed the Legislature, makes accessory dwelling units in someone's home a permitted use, but cities can set other requirements, including that the homes remain owner-occupied.
"I think this is an important step toward efficient use of our housing stock, which is a necessary step in dealing with our housing affordability problem that we have in Utah. One of the main kinds of obstacles to the creation of accessory dwelling units are zoning laws which vary from city to city and county to county," Ward told the House during the bill's floor debate.
The bill also bans homeowners associations from prohibiting the construction or rental of certain accessory dwelling units, among other changes meant to make basement and mother-in-law apartments more accessible.