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HOUSING PROJECTS FRUSTRATE ACTIVISTS

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It's a Catch-22: government-sponsored "affordable housing" that is beyond the means of those who need it most.

And it ought to be a crime, says the social-reform group JEDI Women, which this week released a survey critical of tax-supported apartment projects in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties.The poorest wage-earners in most cases need not apply. Such apartments can also be out of reach for those working for $6 or $7 an hour. Sometimes you're turned away even if you make $9 an hour, double the minimum wage.

"They're skimming off the top," charges Deeda Seed, an activist for the organization, whose acronym stands for Justice, Economic Dignity and Independence. "Poor folks with good rental histories don't have a chance."

But developers are people too, counter builders and property managers who unapologetically admit they have the same profit motive shared by entrepreneurs everywhere.

"Housing is still business, and until the government takes over all of it completely, it'll stay business," said Martin Houck, property manager for Lone Peak Realty and Management.

Demand in the past two years has driven up the cost of a stagnant housing supply, escalating the price of building a single two-bedroom apartment today to $40,000.

"You've got to have a rent of $460 on that just to break even," said Houck, who is reluctant to take risks on those who don't meet his minimum-income standards.

In its hesitance to make exceptions, Lone Peak isn't any different from several such companies in Salt Lake that run dozens of typically suburban Utah housing projects built on tax credits under guidelines that are supposed to make them available to low-income renters.

Such complexes in Salt Lake's current tight rental market, though, are requiring tenants to have income sometimes triple the monthly rent.

"I've gone down as low as two times the rent," said Houck. "But it doesn't make sense to let somebody who makes $500 a month move into a $500 apartment."

Tough minimum-income rules can put an apartment out of reach for people like Denise Mafi, who is married with one child and with another on the way. The Mafi family brings in between $1,300 and $1,400 a month and wants to leave its downtown Salt Lake digs for the suburbs.

"We can't afford it, according to them," said Mafi, who runs a home-based business that takes in perhaps $100 a month and whose husband is a $6-an-hour maintenance worker at Salt Lake International Airport.

"Affordable housing is becoming an oxymoron, actually," adds Cheryl Ek, a Salt Lake single mother of two who has been turned away from more than one such project.

Ek makes $414 a month from Aid to Families with Dependent Children and gets $272 in food stamps. She says because her priority is raising her children she won't go to work for wages that would pay less than her government assistance.

She lives in an unsubsidized apartment complex in downtown Salt Lake where living quarters are cramped.

"I hear these other projects are nicer," says Ek, "but I guess I'm too poor to be poor."

The issue's not as black-and-white as some insist, though, according to Helen Kessler, a manager for Evergreen Management Group, which rents about 800 tax-subsidized apartments in the Salt Lake area.

"We need to be concerned that the rent will be paid," said Kessler, who argues it's only smart for her company to require tenants' monthly income be almost three times Evergreen's rents, which run about $450 a month for a two-bedroom apartment and $525 for three bedrooms.

Kessler says her company sticks to the rules, renting to people who make no more than about half Salt Lake's median income of $41,800.

The loophole JEDI Women object to, however, is one of omission: There's no law saying you can't put a floor on income.

Randy Archuleta, low-income housing tax credit administrator for the Utah Housing Finance Agency, says every tax-subsidized apartment project under his jurisdiction is toeing the line. Each is subjected to an annual rigorous audit to make sure the right mix of below-median-income families are represented.

The agency is by far the biggest Utah grantor of tax breaks for low-income housing projects, supervising 61 apartment complexes under a program where the average annual income of beneficiaries is $17,000, an amount that requires an $8-an-hour job.

"There are just not enough programs out there designed for everybody," says Archuleta, who is sympathetic toward developers whom he says have to make money if such projects are going to survive.

Housing bureaucrats are not all pleased with the minimum-income requirements, though.

"It sounds to me like this might be interpreted as a way to get around state law," said Kerry Bate, who oversees a separate state program that funnels hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to developers who promise in return to erect affordable housing.

Bate said with credit checks and rental-history data there are enough safeguards to weed out deadbeats, and he notes a Utah statute that bars landlords from discriminating according to income source.

"If we go back to the kind of rental market we had in 1987 - when they were begging for tenants - would any of these restrictions be in place?"

"Certainly we're going to look at allowing this," he said. "If it's really violating the spirit of the state fair-housing law it's something that would cause us great concern."