Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, pushed back on claims that lawmakers have expended more energy on luring professional sports teams to the state than on addressing the interrelated issues of housing affordability and homelessness.

The state Legislature is “moving the needle” on these issues in significant ways, Adams insisted during a Tuesday media availability, through “cutting edge” solutions to get young families into owner-occupied homes and to connect people experiencing homelessness with the resources they need.

“We’re attacking this on every front,” Adams told reporters. “Never before has there been such an effort to try to help with homelessness and help with housing affordability.”

With just three days left in the 2024 legislative session, and little to no wiggle room to meet Gov. Spencer Cox’s ambitious housing budget recommendations, lawmakers are working overtime, in collaboration with the governor’s office, to ensure that a package of bills meant to decrease costs for home developers and first-time home buyers crosses the finish line.

Meanwhile, amid an austere spending outlook for the upcoming fiscal year, legislative leadership continues to prioritize a $170 million income tax cut and measures that pave the way to help finance a National Hockey League and Major League Baseball stadium in Salt Lake City.

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Lawmakers have constructed unique funding mechanisms for both projects that would utilize tax increment financing, based on increased sales taxes on certain services, to generate roughly $1.8 billion over the next three decades, resulting in state ownership of the facility in the case of the baseball stadium.

But some worry these efforts, which have been touted as a way to revitalize the west side of Salt Lake City and keep downtown an economic hub, may crowd out urgently needed investments to help house and shelter Utah’s most vulnerable populations.

On Monday, the Faith and Advocacy Coalition and End Hunger Homelessness, sent a letter to members of the Utah Legislature, calling on them “to be as creative in finding ways to fund solutions to homelessness as they have been in finding ways to fund stadiums,” Bill Tibbitts of the Crossroads Urban Center, told the Deseret News.

“We challenge you to come up with a plan for investing $60 million per year in efforts to end homelessness and provide affordable housing to low income seniors and young families during the final week of the legislative session,” the letter read, referencing the estimated annual tax revenue needed for the sports arenas. “Our state has the compassion, creativity and the means to build communities where seniors and families with children are not sleeping in cars or tents because they cannot afford to pay the rent.”

When asked about the letter, Adams said he believed that’s exactly what legislators have been trying to do.

“I think we’re being creative, we’re being responsive,” Adams said.

The senate president added that while “there’s no funding” for first-time homebuyers or deeply affordable housing programs, what lawmakers have done to increase the supply of housing in the state will help the next generation of homebuyers as well as those on the verge of homelessness.

“When you look at what we’re doing for first(time) homebuyers and housing affordability, I think you’ll see it reflect significantly on the homeless population because I think people who can’t afford either to rent or to to buy, they end up homeless,” he said.

The Legislature’s unique approach to housing

Adams pointed to SB268, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, and SB168, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, as examples of lawmakers finding a way to fund affordable home construction in a tight budget year.

Harper’s bill, First Home Investment Zone Act, would allow cities to create two new kinds of zoning designations in their boundaries to help lower and middle income residents afford to buy a home. These specialized zones would utilize tax increment financing to allow city governments to “capture” revenue from increased property values within an area and direct it toward lowering the cost of land and infrastructure, for developers, and the home itself, for the purchaser, Harper said.

This type of public investment would be contingent on the zone only allowing projects where 50% of the homes are deed-restricted to remain owner occupied for 25 years, Harper said.

“We’re doing what we can to make it so people coming out of college or in their first jobs can have a place to live and own,” he said.

Fillmore’s bill, in addition to permitting and standardizing modular home construction across the state, includes a similar provision to Harper’s, allowing — not mandating — cities to “upzone” areas for single-family, owner-occupied homes on six to eight acres. If the housing projects meet these requirements, and fall below a certain price determined by the average home sale price in the zip code, then the city can use funds generated from increased property taxes to build infrastructure “to buy down the cost” of the homes.

“Everything that we’re doing on affordable housing this year is about creating additional supply of owner-occupied, first-time homes,” Fillmore said. “And you combine that with what we’ve done last year, I think we’re really setting it up so that we can accelerate the supply of affordable homes for first-time homebuyers so that people that are currently priced out of the market and are forced into rentals, even though they would like to buy, but just can’t find the inventory, will be able to find affordable homes.”

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Harper and Fillmore’s bills join several others that are traveling through the Legislature this week.

HB572, sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, would authorize the state treasurer’s office to temporarily make available $300 million in public investment funds to help local banks and credit unions offer low-interest loans for developers building affordable homes.

The state would provide low-rate deposits to financial institutions on the condition that they be used for loans on projects where 60% of units cost less than $450,000, there’s a five-year owner occupancy requirement and prospective buyers are informed about the First-Time Homebuyer assistance program.

Spendlove’s bill passed the House on Monday and exited its Senate committee with a favorable vote on Tuesday.

Rep. Stephen Whyte, R-Mapleton, who co-chairs the state’s commision on housing affordability with Fillmore, has sponsored HB465 and HB476 which realign state agencies and programs, and streamline regulatory processes, to increase the supply of affordable homes.

Both bills passed the House on Thursday and their Senate committee on Monday.

While new appropriations for affordable housing programs will likely land around $20 million at the end of the session, according to Friday’s appropriations report — a far cry from the $150 million requested by Cox — this doesn’t reflect the true extent of the state’s investment, especially at the local level, in first-time homes, Harper said.

“There’s literally hundreds of millions of dollars being invested by cities, counties and other entities into affordable housing,” he said.

Taking advantage of new state laws and programs, Harper continued, Utah County and Salt Lake County have invested “well over a billion and a half (dollars)” into paving the way for increased housing options at decreased prices in the state.