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In our opinion: Housing proposal needed for Utah homeless issue

FILE: Residents gather outside the Bud Bailey apartments in Salt Lake City. The housing complex provides affordable housing for refugees and other low-income members of the local community.
FILE: Residents gather outside the Bud Bailey apartments in Salt Lake City. The housing complex provides affordable housing for refugees and other low-income members of the local community.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The office of state government that oversees programs aimed at curbing homelessness in Utah estimates the state has a current shortage of affordable housing in the range of 43,000 units. Eliminating that shortage would require creation of new housing units equivalent to the total number of households in the cities of Logan, Draper and Bountiful, combined. That’s not something that will come about in any short order. Solutions will require incremental increases in the affordable housing stock over time, little by little, in communities throughout the state.

That kind of practical approach is behind draft legislation revealed this month that would offer various incentives to developers to include low-income housing in stand-alone projects, or in connection with larger developments. The measure is a result of study by a task force on affordable housing that has smartly focused on ways to devise a market-driven solution to the problem. It would expand tax credits for housing developers and create incentives for existing landlords to increase units available to low-income applicants. The measure could also bring down the costs of creating affordable housing associated with current fees and surcharges.

The proposed measure, presented to the Utah Legislature’s Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee, is being applauded by real estate interests as well as advocates for low-income citizens. It represents a utilitarian kind of public-private partnership that is more likely to produce benefits than programs that simply spread taxpayer dollars toward new development.

A study earlier this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed approaches taken in various communities to cope with growing rates of homelessness, indicating that policies aimed at incentivizing private developers are catching on. Utah would join 16 other states that offer tax incentives to reduce a shortage of affordable units. The problem has been particularly acute in urban areas where the costs of housing have risen sharply since the recovery from the 2008 recession. The study cites research by Harvard University showing that between 2001 and 2014, rents rose by as much as 7 percent on a national basis, while wages shrunk by 9 percent, which has sharply increased the number of people in the category of “housing burdened.” The problem has stretched into the middle class, as well. One in five people earning between $45,000 and $75,000 are forced to squeeze their budgets beyond recommended levels in order to afford a place to live.

In Utah, the problem is most acute in Salt Lake City, which is taking its own measures to address the problem, albeit at this juncture, in less than comprehensive fashion. The City Council voted to repurpose about $10 million in Redevelopment Agency Funds for new housing in the affordable range. Just how that money might be spent isn’t clear. The mayor’s office is actively working on, but has yet to put forth, a strategy for tackling the issue.

The good news is that the problem is not being ignored. We are encouraged that state and local leaders have chosen to focus attention on a problem that is unlikely to get better on its own, and one that impacts the quality of life for many individuals, and for the community as a whole.