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40 protesters crash housing conference

About 40 people crashed an affordable-housing conference at the posh Deer Valley Resort Friday, saying more needs to be done to help poor Utahns.

The members and friends of the Disabled Rights Action Committee said they didn't come to agitate the developers, Realtors and state officials, but to ask for their cooperation.Officials from the Utah Housing Coalition welcomed the party crashers to stay for the rest of the one-day conference. Then, they voted unanimously to approve three ideas the DRAC protesters made for affordable, available and accessible housing.

Those recommendations included the coalition rededicating itself to housing for people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder and joining with advocates in approaching Gov. Mike Leavitt and the 1998 Legislature with solutions.

Lola Stopper traveled from Salt Lake City to participate in the protest.

She lives in an apartment complex for low-income people and those with disabilities which recently changed its rules to accept only people 55 and older. She was 54 at the time.

"I was afraid for a while," she said. "It's scary not knowing where you're going to live."

Kay Fox of the Salt Lake Community Action Program said the scarcity of affordable and accessible housing has people frightened and angry.

The Wasatch Front is full of communities taking the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) approach, said DRAC's Barbara Toomer. And, Toomer said, developers continue to build houses with steps and narrow hallways that people with disabilities cannot access.

"There is affordable housing and there is accessible housing and never the twain shall meet," said Linda Avery of West Valley City, who is unable to work since a stroke four years ago.

Her husband, Jim Avery, receives federal housing assistance, but the couple also need help from their church every month to pay the rest of their $600 rent.

The numbers aren't good. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a Utah worker would have to make almost double the minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment without cutting back on basic needs such as food and health care.

Thirty-three percent of Utah renters can't afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market value, and 40 percent can't afford two bedrooms. Housing prices in Utah have gone up more than 75 percent in five years.

Low-income housing expert Reynard Ramsey's organization, the Enterprise Foundation, has developed more than 72,000 new and renovated homes and apartments as affordable housing. He said Utah is not alone in the crisis.

But, like other areas, there needs to be an abundance of courage, creativity and financial and personal commitment to solve the crisis.

"We collectively must take a next step," he said, adding that families, sound economies and humanity require affordable housing.

And, he said, it's time to stop looking around and over the poor. It's time to look them in the eye and, with them, create solutions.

"Shun conformity," Ramsey said. "The problems of today won't be solved by the answers of yesterday."

In an effort to find solutions, Ramsey and Frank Skillern, president of American Express Centurion Bank, announced a partnership.

The bank has committed $10 million to affordable housing developments in Utah. The two-year project will be undertaken with the assistance of the Enterprise Foundation's Enterprise Social Investment Corporation.

The American Express Utah Equity Fund allows investors reductions in federal income taxes for investing in multifamily, affordable rental properties.