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Utah’s low-income housing in jeopardy

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State and local governments must find at least a $21 million down payment over the next five years or risk losing low-income housing when the poor need it most, a new statewide survey of subsidized housing shows.

The inventory of affordable housing released Sunday identifies 93 housing projects with 4,451 apartments, many of which are run down or will lose low-income rent restrictions by 2006. When restrictions expire, owners may rent at higher rates, thereby reducing the already-scarce number of places available to low-income renters.

This is certainly not news the state needs at it tries to deal with a $200 million budget shortfall. But low-income housing advocates say they have been saying the housing has been at risk since October 2000.

The situation is not new to government leaders, said Tim Funk of Crossroads Urban Center, co-author of the report. "We've been talking about this for years. But what's happened is we've found 1,751 more apartments at risk."

Funk said the problem is the housing has entered a "diseconomy" in which lack of doing something or cutting funds now for the housing will actually cost a lot more in the long run.

The need for housing is not going to go away, and in fact will likely increase over the next five years, low-income housing advocates say. The smart thing to do is help preserve the projects, which they estimate will cost more than $216 million.

Federal loans are available to help pay to remodel the housing, but the money is not available unless local governments pay 10 percent toward preservation costs.

Under the Section 8 and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit programs, building owners agree to provide housing at modest rates, while government makes up any difference between that rate and one-third of a resident's income.

The advocates estimate it will cost an average of $45,000 per unit to update and maintain existing affordable housing, compared with an average of $60,000 apiece to replace units that range from studios to two- and three-bedroom homes.

Crossroads and Utah HUD Tenants Association estimate preservation costs are $117 million less than replacing the existing projects, which could total almost $334 million.

Money is a problem, but finding the political will to save the housing is a bigger one, advocates say.

Many legislators consider the housing as a creation of the federal government through federal subsides; therefore it's a federal issue.

The Legislature officially recognized the problem last year when it passed a resolution urging Congress to make the preservation of federally subsidized low-income housing "a top priority. It urged Congress to work with Utah to form public and private partnerships to resolve the housing issues that face thousands of Utah's senior citizens, disabled and working poor families.

While advocates appreciate the sentiment, encouraging words aren't enough, Funk said.

There is an attitude, especially in the current economic downturn, to let the Fed save the housing, he said. "That is passing the buck literally. The feds are going to be major partners, but we have to get state and local help with the 10 percent buy-in. They have a similar program with Utah Housing for first-time home buyers. This could work with that same kind of perspective."

Contributing: The Associated Press

E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com