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Utah facing affordable housing crisis, advocates tell lawmakers

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We can’t budget what our needs are because the federal government keeps going on with continuing resolutions. That’s the standard way these days. It keeps getting pushed further out. – Terry Feveryear

SALT LAKE CITY — Roberta Robinson's rent kept going up, which was worry enough for someone getting by on Social Security and a small pension.

Then came the medical bills for her treatment and care after a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"It totally wiped me out. I had no money. I tried to keep my apartment and they kept raising the rent and raising the rent. Finally, I got to the point that I couldn't stay there any more. I couldn't afford the rent," she said.

Robinson is hardly alone. State and local housing officials estimate that Utah needs 44,000 units of housing to meet current demands.

"Here in Utah, we are facing an affording housing crisis," Terry Feveryear, executive director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, told members of a legislative committee Wednesday.

Robinson, who lives in an apartment in an affordable housing development owned and operated by the housing authority, said her budget was so tight that she was choosing between going to the doctor and paying her rent.

"I don't know what I would have done. I was at the point I was going to be out on the street," Robinson said.

In 2010, she moved into Taylor Springs Apartments for seniors, a Housing Authority of Salt Lake City property. "It's nice here. We have our own little community. We look out for one another," said Robinson, 79.

While Taylor Springs Apartments serves adults 55 and older, the need for affordable housing spans all ages, said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition.

They include college students, workers in Utah's service industries, single parents and families struggling to make ends meet. They are people who pay more than 30 percent of their gross incomes on housing, Rollins told the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee Wednesday.

"Where are these people living? Well, they've doubled up, tripled up. We have well over 10,000 children who meet HUD’s definition of homeless. These children are living in other families' homes, friends' homes. They couch surf. A lot of them, they live in a car. In rural areas, they're camping. A lot of these families are working; it's that they can't afford to live in our community," she said.

Others live in substandard housing, some in dwellings that don't have running water. "They’re afraid to say something because they have nowhere else to go," Rollins said.

As the demand for housing has increased, federal funding has remained stagnant, largely because Congress has been deadlocked on budget bills.

"We can't budget what our needs are because the federal government keeps going on with continuing resolutions. That's the standard way these days. It keeps getting pushed further out," Feveryear said.

To further complicate matters, the federal government has deeply cut the funds it provides to housing authorities to administer affordable housing and provide case management.

"When they lower administrative money, we have to lay off staff," she said.

Rollins said housing is a basic need that is essential to an individual's sense of security. On the reality television show "Survivor," the first thing contestants do is create shelter, she explained.

"That becomes the foundation of their community, their family, their tribe," Rollins said.

She asked lawmakers to reflect on their concept of "home."

"When we’re talking about affordable housing, I want you to think back to when you were a child and you understood what home meant. … What got you to where you are sitting today? It’s most likely where you lived and the security of that. It’s just having a roof over your head and knowing when you came home from school, you were going to be able to walk through that door and have a snack," she said.

For Robinson, home is a one-bedroom apartment she can afford. Instead of fretting about her budget, she takes part in activities at a senior center four days a week, is an active member of her church and she works with Cub Scouts.

And she has a love for ceramics, last year winning a blue ribbon at the Utah State Fair for a pot that depicts a Pueblo tribal dwelling.

She counts herself lucky that she was able to qualify for an apartment, where her rent is about $300 a month, less than half of the rent at her former apartment in downtown Salt Lake.

"I just signed another year's lease today. I'll be here for another year," she said, smiling.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com