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SALT LAKE CITY — With more than $2 billion in budget surplus, Utah homeless advocates urged the Legislature to invest significantly in deeply affordable housing during a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Advocates spoke in favor of HB462, which would allocate more than $100 million to the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund and the Rural Housing Fund. Nonprofits, religious organizations and philanthropic initiatives have long led the way when it comes to affordable housing, said Utah Housing Coalition Executive Director Tara Rollins, but it's "time for our legislative leadership to become part of this partnership."
"Never has the state been in a better position financially to invest federal and state funds for housing people can afford. Opportunity starts at home with a safe place to lie one's head down at night," she said.
HB462, sponsored by Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, was not prioritized in the initial proposed budget last week. SB238 asked for nearly $128 million to address homelessness and would have created a grant program to coordinate wraparound services — specifically for case workers — but the budget currently funds only $55 million for the grants.
Thanks to federal stimulus provided during the pandemic, Utah has more to spend than usual, but lawmakers have cautioned against using all of the surplus to fund ongoing projects, citing the need to protect against future economic downturns.
Advocates urged lawmakers to fully fund both HB462 and SB238, although the Senate already approved the watered-down $55 million on Monday.
Reading from a statement by First United Methodist Church's the Rev. AJ Bush, the Rev. Steve Klemz said that "who we are as a state" is reflected by policies and budget priorities. The American Rescue Plan Act has provided a "once in a lifetime" chance to address homelessness and affordable housing.
"To slash proposed funds for those who are in need of deeply affordable housing, while providing tax cuts to the wealthiest among us to slash those funds, I believe, rips at the very moral fabric of our state's hope to live in dignity and equity," the statement said.
Shawn McMillan, executive director of First Step House, said that developers and nonprofits need the support that would come from fully funding both bills.
"These are incredibly powerful tools that allow developers — especially nonprofit developers, who are most interested in developing housing for these specialty populations — to cover the cost of services, which are absolutely essential," McMillan said, urging the Legislature to "bring back their focus" on the "extraordinarily powerful tools that are needed."
"Without sufficient state investment in affordable housing, our communities will fracture," said Chase Thomas, the executive director for the Alliance for a Better Utah. "Parents will struggle to provide necessities for their children. Marginalized communities will continue to be pushed out of our cities. And we will fail in our moral mandate to protect and lift up the vulnerable among us."
He said Utah needs to prioritize the housing crisis as a state, after a "rush to prioritize another year of tax cuts at the beginning of the session, only ... to deprioritize affordable housing funding at the end."
Speaking through a translator, Silvia Ramirez said affordable housing makes it possible for her — along with her husband and two children — to have a stable living situation.
"I am asking you today ... to put aside more funding for deeply affordable housing and affordable housing for the state of Utah to ensure that families like mine can live strong, healthy and secure with our children as well," Ramirez said.
According to data provided by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Utah has a shortage of more than 45,000 rental homes that are affordable for extremely low income renters — those whose incomes are at or below the poverty line or 30% or the median income for their region. Nearly 71% of extremely low income earners spend more than half of their total income on housing costs and utilities.
How will the Legislature fund affordable housing?
SB238 sponsor Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he worked with the state's homelessness services leader Wayne Niederhauser on the bill.
Speaking on the Senate floor about the lower-than-requested funding, Anderegg said: "We're happy, we'll take that, we'll move forward with it."
The bill establishes a grant process to help properly align wraparound services for the homeless, most specifically case worker services, Anderegg said. He said it's an effort to get to the root issues for those who are chronically homeless as a case worker will "correlate" them with the proper services to help stabilize them.
"We can break the cycle, and that's what this is doing," he said.
A portion of chronically homeless residents will continue to need permanent assisted housing forever, he said.
There are several hundred people who need permanent housing throughout the state, and more housing is needed, according to the senator. He said the bill will help ensure they also receive help from a case worker.
He anticipates the bill will prompt more reporting from homelessness service providers to inform the Legislature's efforts.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, asked if the state is "doing any good" with the resources already given to stemming the issue.
"Has it gotten any better? Are we going to be here four years from now spending another $55 million?" Weiler asked.
Anderegg acknowledged the state is "hacking away at branches." Despite millions of dollars spent, "where we have fallen down" is not following through with case management, causing homeless individuals to "fall through the cracks again."
"We have made strides, we have better service centers than we've ever had before," Anderegg said, adding that the state needs to do a better job following through.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, asked how the state can manage ongoing success with just a one-time appropriation,
Anderegg said it won't be possible. "This is something we're going to have to come back next year and see if we can figure out some ongoing sources," he said.
The bill passed the Senate 27-1 on Monday, with only McCay opposing it.
Contributing: Ashley Imlay