SALT LAKE CITY — Valerie Williams was once filled with dread every time her rent due date approached.
The 32-year-old artist said her monthly payment used to eat up almost all of her income, leaving her wondering whether she'd even be able to eat.
"All of my money went to rent, both paychecks a month," Williams said. "I was always just like, 'Am I going to make it? Can I buy Cheerios?'"
That is a question Salt Lake City officials hope to eradicate through a multipronged approach to create affordable housing that they say is already bearing fruit.
Williams used to pay about $1,000 a month to live downtown, but she said she was forced to move when rents jumped to nearly $1,400 a month.
Williams — who works as a sign painter for Trader Joes and freelances in calligraphy — said she moved to Utah from Nantucket, Massachusetts, thinking housing would be cheaper. But, in reality, her search for affordable housing proved to be far more difficult than she expected.
"It was heartbreaking," she said, recalling driving around town, desperately jotting down phone numbers, filling out applications and then never hearing a word back. Or if she did, it was far too expensive.
The market was not kind to a single woman in her 30s on an artist's salary.
"It just felt like the city was pushing me out of it, even before I had the chance to become part of it," Williams said.
So when she found and qualified for an apartment at Project Open, one of Salt Lake City's newest mixed-income housing projects at 355 N. 500 West, Williams said it was a "godsend."
"I cried," she said. "It was incredible."
With an income at about 55 percent of the Salt Lake City area median income (which is about $52,000 for a single person), Williams qualified for an apartment costing about $675 a month. She then could also afford to pay $250 a month for a studio space, where she spends most of her time working.
Now, Williams said she has her dream job and her dream space — without breaking her budget.
"It's amazing," she said, standing in her studio, surrounded by her artwork. "It's been a dream ever since I was little."
A familiar story
Williams' struggle is "the story of the last three years" when it comes to searching for housing in Utah, according to Chris Parker, executive director of Giv Group, the nonprofit that built the 112-unit Project Open building.
As a developer, Parker said he's watched the housing market go haywire. Prices skyrocket as supply fails to keep up with demand. Luxury, market-rate apartments can't be built fast enough, let alone mixed-income or affordable units.
But with Project Open, Parker and his team wanted to prove net-zero, mixed-income buildings can be not just affordable but profitable to build. They wanted to create a new model to address the affordable housing shortage while also improve local air quality.
There's "not a single gas line" in Project Open, Parker said. Meanwhile, neighbors range from being formerly homeless, to artists like Williams, to those who can afford to pay full market rate. Parker, himself, lived there until recently.
Parker is also a member of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's Blue Ribbon Commission, a body created as part of the mayor's housing plan to leverage resources in public-private partnerships to tackle housing gaps in Utah's capital.
Over the past few years, Parker said he's seen striking progress on closing Salt Lake City's 7,500-unit affordable housing gap.
"There's a lot of great people thinking about affordable housing right now," he said. "But there needs to be a lot more."
"In 10 years, if we keep going at the rate we're currently going with affordable housing, we will have a far wider gap than we do right now," Parker added. "We're not keeping up with even our growth, let alone chipping into the current need."
Take 62-year-old Dortha Antonio, one of Parker's tenants, who said she spent 4 1/2 years at the Road Home on wait lists for affordable housing.
Last year, days before Christmas, Antonio got her own apartment at Project Open for about $400 a month. That eats up a big part of her roughly $750 a month budget, much of which comes from her Social Security income, but she calls the roof over her head a "blessing."
"I thank God every day for this place," she said.
Pipeline of affordability
Biskupski, now heading into her final year in her first term as mayor, is well aware the race to build affordable housing began years ago, long before she took office.
During her campaign, she promised to "build a city for everyone," and that included housing for all income levels.
Biskupski, during a recent interview with the Deseret News, reflected on the progress her administration has made since she took office in 2016 — progress she called "super exciting."
"There's no other city or county doing this kind of work," Biskupski said.
"The beauty," she said, was the Blue Ribbon Commission was aiming for 1,000 new affordable units.
"Well, we're at 2,000," Biskupski said.
Heading into her 2019 State of the City address, slated for Jan. 17, Biskupski said Salt Lake City is making huge progress as it relates to affordable housing, and it will only get better with time if city officials stay on the track they've created.
Before Biskupski, former Mayor Ralph Becker started work to build additional affordable housing. But more recently — particularly during 2018 — more projects have started picking up steam. And there has been an unprecedented commitment from the City Council and other partners to get the ball rolling even faster, Biskupski said.
Before Biskupski took office, from 2013 to 2015, four mixed-income housing projects were completed, adding 73 affordable units out of a total of 209 units built, according to Salt Lake City housing tracking documents. (Salt Lake City officials consider affordable housing to cost anywhere from 80 percent or below the area median income).
Jump ahead to 2015 to 2016. Four more projects were completed, including two 100 percent affordable projects, bringing on 179 new affordable units out of 225.
Fast forward one more year, from 2016 to 2017, Biskupski's first year in office. Seven new projects were completed, totaling 1,055 units. Out of those, 630 units, about 60 percent, are affordable.
Then, 2017 to 2018: five more projects — including the first phase of Project Open — are complete, proposed, or under construction, totaling 903 units, out of which 582 (64 percent) are affordable.
What's next? The coming year, heading on through 2020, will be truly "exciting," Biskupski said.
In the current budget year, 17 projects are either under construction, proposed or in pre-development, totaling 1,592 units, of which 1,057, or 66 percent, are slated to be affordable.
That means since Biskupski took office, about 2,448 affordable units have been completed or are in Salt Lake City's construction or planning pipeline.
Of those, about 445 units are slated to be permanent supportive housing, meant to help transition people out of homelessness as the county's new homeless system gets up and running this summer. Before 2016, the city hadn't seen new permanent supportive housing built in over a decade.
"Prior to 2016 we were doing maybe 100 units a year," said Melissa Jensen, director of the city's Housing and Neighborhood Development Department. Now, that's over 1,000 a year.
"And it keeps growing," Jensen said.
Salt Lake City has started a "continuous and healthy pipeline of affordability," Jensen said, and it's a pipeline Biskupski and her team believes should be replicated throughout the Wasatch Front.
'We're the model'
When it comes to addressing Utah's estimated 40,000-unit gap for affordable housing, Parker said other Utah cities are doing "some," but Salt Lake City is "heads and tails above anyone else."
"They're attacking this problem in a way that even a lot of major cities would be envious of," he said. "This matters on both the administration and the council side. I've never seen quite the unification on this issue."
Over the last several years, the City Council and Redevelopment Agency allocated about $34 million to a fund used for affordable housing. The council also negotiated for a 10 percent set-aside to be included in the Utah Inland Port Authority legislation to fund affordable housing within the city.
The Redevelopment Agency approved a total of $8.5 million in housing loans to create 570 new housing units, of which nearly 300 will be affordable.
Additionally, the council approved the 0.5 percent sales tax hike and earmarked about $4 million of annual revenue to address affordable housing needs.
More affordable housing initiatives will be outlined in Biskupski's State of the City address, the mayor said. With the approval of the sales tax hike, more money will be pumped into the city's Housing Trust Fund, as well as toward initiatives such as down payment assistance and House 20, a program with the aim to house the top 20 heaviest users of homeless services.
Before, the city was building affordable housing with "a project there, a project there," Jensen said, whereas now the city has undergone a "fundamental shift" toward a long-term approach, with a new funding source.
"Those things have made it possible (to build) a foundation that this will be a legacy for years to come," Jensen said. "We're the model."
But with the housing crunch affecting the entire Wasatch Front, Biskupski said Salt Lake City can't act alone.
"It can't just be us," the mayor said, calling on other cities and Utahns to push toward shifting attitudes and push back against NIMBYs when it comes to mixed-income communities.
"We've got to be more community-oriented," she said. "Think about who is in your community and makes it run: your first-year school teacher, your first-year law enforcement officer, your first-year firefighter. Those individuals aren't making a ton of money and they need affordable housing."
"Let's be real," Biskupski added. "If you're going to continue to go to a barista for your coffee, you should be comfortable enough to have that person live in your neighborhood. Let's stop acting like everyone who has very little money is somehow criminal. That's just not real."