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Utah lawmakers look at bonds for affordable housing

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah lawmakers and civic leaders believe the answer to Utah's growing housing affordability issue will lie in the state's ability to develop creative solutions that can address this ongoing community concern.

Among the ideas under consideration in the Legislature in the coming year will be a $100-million bond proposed authored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. He presented the draft proposal Wednesday to the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee on Utah's Capitol Hill.

"This is helping incentivize developers to produce housing that is not normally easy for developers to build and receive a return on," he explained. The units produced would be targeted toward people of 50 percent or below area median income, he said.

If approved, the money would be distributed by the Olene Walker Housing Trust Fund with the purpose of generating more affordable housing throughout the state. The trust fund supports quality affordable housing options for individuals and families who are very low-income, low-income and moderate-income.

"Their lives are so on the edge and on the margins all the time," Briscoe said. "They're the ones who've suffered the most housing instability and are closest to disaster."

Briscoe said the goal would be to develop new units and repurpose some existing units so that working families could access decent housing, which is becoming increasingly out of reach for so many people.

"We want to make sure the first-year teacher that within five or 10 years, there's a(n affordable) place within 10 or 15 miles of where they work," he said. "Or the first year policeman."

During his presentation to the committee, Briscoe pointed out that numerous states around the country are fighting a similar battle and are working on ways to address this concern in a variety of ways. He noted that his proposal would have a significant focus on developing new housing units that would be affordable to more people.

"We're creating more families every year for the last three or four years than we're creating housing stock," he said. The solutions to the problem will involve a multifaceted approach that includes public and private collaboration, he said.

"This is an essential piece of the puzzle to help us get further down the road to making sure that housing prices don't look like Southern California or the San Francisco Bay Area," Briscoe said.

Another presenter, Rachel Otto, government relations director for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, told the committee that housing affordability is an issue that requires strategies that make sense within the fabric of individual communities.

"Our cities are looking at the makeup of their community and where they are in relation to transportation corridors, jobs, and they're figuring out what fits here," she explained. In some cases, high-density housing may be an option, while in other cases, smaller housing lots or nontraditional units may be alternatives, she added.

Ultimately, the answers will lie in cooperation between public and private partners working toward the common goal of creating vibrant communities with diverse housing options that are attainable to numerous income levels, she said.

Otto noted that the affordability concern has become an issue that is being felt by more and more people statewide, which in turn has caught the attention of policymakers who are being asked to do something about it. That dynamic may be what is needed for more solutions to be developed sooner rather than later, she said.

"It's going to shift over time as it becomes more of an economic problem for the state," she said. When companies decide against coming to Utah because there is not enough housing that is affordable to most of its employees, civic leaders will take notice and put their minds to addressing the issue in a more expedient manner, she said.

"No one wants to see Utah turn into a place like Portland (Oregon) or Seattle or places in California that have this (affordability) problem," Otto said. "As our state and local leaders continue to realize how this does affect everybody, it will just become a more collaborative (resolution) effort."

Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition, said leaders should also consider working with lower-wage employers like big-box retailers or service industry companies to seek their assistance with providing financial resources to help mitigate the housing affordability issue.

"Why aren't we going to ask their (charitable) foundations to be part of the solution and using some of that money to build affordable housing?" she queried rhetorically. She also noted that communities should consider more nontraditional housing such as single-room occupancy units.

"There are some really creative ways that we could be building much smaller units, but with more common space and making sure that it's managed extremely well, she added.