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Clergy, advocates urge action on affordable housing, homeless shelters

SALT LAKE CITY — Clergy and advocates for low-income people joined in word and prayer Friday, calling on Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the City Council to move forward on policies and funding to address the city's affordable housing needs.

Unless more is done to develop a wide array of affordable housing options, "we're going to lose the heart of what this city is about. We need to preserve the diversity here. We need to preserve the livability of Salt Lake City by making it affordable for people to live here," said the Rev. Curtis Price of Salt Lake's First Baptist Church.

Billie Coleman, who lives in a studio apartment at Liberty CityWalk, said she would have been priced out of the market if not for the help of a housing voucher from the Housing Authority of the County of Salt Lake and Cowboy Partners' commitment to develop housing options that span a wide array of incomes.

Coleman lived with her son in Murray until he got married and he and his wife started a family. Her housing options were limited because of her physical disabilities and limited income.

"There's really a strong need for additional affordable housing. There's (market-rate) housing available, but it's not available to a lot of people," she said.

According to a recent report by Salt Lake City's Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development, the city needs 7,500 units of affordable housing now.

"I would say that and then some," Coleman said.

Next week, the city's Redevelopment Agency board will finalize a previous vote to earmark nearly $30 million for affordable housing and purchase of sites for planned homeless resource centers.

The board, made up of City Council members, voted 6-1 to appropriate, “on an as-needed basis,” nearly $11.8 million for the purchase of land for homeless resource centers in the city.

Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Biskupski, said the mayor recognizes the need for affordable housing and homeless resource centers. The mayor's office has worked collaboratively with the council on funding for the resource centers, Rojas said, and the administration plans to release a comprehensive plan on affordable housing, likely by the end of the year.

"Affordable housing is a priority for everyone, for the mayor, for the City Council, everyone in the city," he said. "The mayor has been working diligently to develop a plan with (Housing and Neighborhood Development) that finds long-term and short-term solutions, but most importantly develops short-term and long-term funding solutions."

Funding is the most important aspect of the plan, Rojas said. "How do we develop a long-term model so we don't end up where we are now 10 to 15 years from now?"

Biskupski believes affordable housing is a statewide issue and other players need to be at the table to develop lasting solutions, he said.

"Salt Lake City can't have a plan that ends at our borders because it won't work, Rojas said. "You can't have a plan for homelessness that stops at 2100 South. … You'll never see a difference if you only think in terms of Salt Lake City when we're talking about problems that exist all along the Wasatch Front."

Tim Funk of Crossroads Urban Center, a nonprofit organization that serves and advocates for low-income people, said it has been 25 years since the City Council has made low-income housing a priority.

"That is revolutionary in this city," Funk said.

While the City Council's priorities are clear, the community has heard far less from Biskupski and her key deputies, he said.

"Now we want the mayor to get with the City Council and make a full-force pledge that we're going to have an affordable housing program for this city for next year and the year after and for the foreseeable future," Funk said. "We're 7,500 units short, and we need those as soon as we can get them."

The group released a letter it will deliver to Biskupski and the City Council recommending immediate action on four key issues: prioritization of underutilized redevelopment agency funds for affordable housing and homeless resource centers; adoption of an $80 million tax levy for affordable housing; passage of inclusionary zoning regulations; and adoption of regulations that incentivize affordable housing as part of transit station area zoning district improvements.

The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, who serves two United Methodist churches in Salt Lake City, said affordable housing means people spend no more than 30 percent of their household incomes on housing.

"The problem is, the housing costs in Salt Lake City have outpaced the wages that are earned by many working people," she said.

A man named David who joins the Rev. McVicker's congregation for breakfast each Sunday morning at First United Methodist Church makes $10 an hour setting up tables and chairs at a convention center.

"David is one paycheck away from homelessness, and he is paying substantially more than HUD's recommendation of 30 percent of his income on housing," she said.

After paying utilities and rent, he has little left for food, let alone any extras, and he earns above the minimum wage of $7.25 in Utah.

"As a person of faith, I believe that we as a community are called to care for our neighbors," the Rev. McVicker said.