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Emphasize economic arguments for improving homeless services, Utah service providers told

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's social services community cannot afford to neglect economic arguments in favor of additional affordable housing for low-income families, more than 500 providers were told Thursday at the state's 15th annual homelessness summit.

Presenting homelessness and a lack of affordable housing solely as moral issues can only take advocates so far in garnering the political will necessary to increase the flow of public resources, said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a policy advocacy organization based in Washington.

"I think we've gotten everybody we're going to get with that message, and it's not enough," said Yentel, the summit's keynote speaker. "And I think that's where starting to talk about the economic benefit (helps)."

Yentel said social services providers will find different emphases work in different communities.

Some policymakers, she said, will be most persuaded by the argument that improved affordable housing is an investment in local health care outcomes, while others may be more interested in learning how it is positively associated with higher educational attainment, or higher household earnings over a lifetime.

But regardless of "what really draws them in," Yentel said, "on all of those we have the data … to make that argument."

The daylong summit, held by state Department of Workforce Services, also included workshops for approximately 570 homelessness and social services providers on the topics of domestic violence, helping those who have experienced trauma, working with affordable housing landlords, mental illness, avoiding providing burnout and more.

Yentel identified the Great Recession as a significant turning point in changes to the affordability of rental housing nationwide, which she said has disproportionately impacted poor families.

As many millennials coming of age started choosing to delay home ownership until later in life and some baby boomers began downsizing to the rental market, "millions of homeowners who lost their homes" in the crisis also began renting, she said.

"All of this happened at more or less the same time. … The demand was outpacing the supply, and so costs were increasing dramatically and that was squeezing the most the lowest income people."

Yentel said that since then, the increasing number of apartments has not made a substantial difference for low-income families unless targeted specifically for them.

"Sometimes the response is, 'Well, if you just build more housing period, more apartments at any level of income, that will help solve the crisis,'" she said. "And there's some truth to, when we build apartments at the luxury level, that there's a little bit of a filtering down (of availability) for high-income renters. But … the affordability never filters down to the lowest income people."

A comprehensive Utah Department of Workforce Services report on affordable housing in Utah in 2017 explains that such housing is federally defined as "any housing unit whose gross monthly costs, including utilities, are equal to no more than 30 percent of a household's gross monthly income."

Jonathan Hardy, director of the Housing and Community Development Division for the Department of Workforce Services, told providers that "there's going to be a bill drafted to address affordable housing in the state" in the upcoming legislative session. He said it will first be heard in the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee's next meeting Nov. 14.

"I'll just summarize it by saying there will be a request for funding as part of that," he said.

Hardy said the concept of single-room occupancy — or dormitory-style housing — will be "at the forefront of that particular bill and request."

He also said the department is focusing on "providing incentives to communities to participate in doing their part in creating affordable housing."

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told summitgoers that "this next legislative session is going to be a very important one for affordable housing."

He also said Utah's affordable housing predicament is "unsustainable" and has state policymakers "extremely concerned."

"It’s bad for our economy, it’s bad for our citizens, and it's especially bad for our citizens living on the margin right now," Cox said.