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Opinion: Rising rents are causing homelessness. Do political candidates have a plan?

Candidates for municipal elections need to be aware of the rising rent crisis. We propose 3 strategies to solve the problem

SHARE Opinion: Rising rents are causing homelessness. Do political candidates have a plan?
Natasha Woodhouse, 28, at a homeless camp in Salt Lake City on March 9, 2022.

Natasha Woodhouse, 28, at a homeless camp in Salt Lake City on March 9, 2022. Salt Lake County’s housing shortage and high home prices have led to the tightest apartment market in the county’s history.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Candidates for municipal elections around Utah are beginning to share what they hope to accomplish if they are elected to serve as a mayor or member of a city council. Few of these candidates have an agenda for renters, despite the fact that an increasing share of residents in many cities are renters. Over 30% of homes in Salt Lake County and Utah County are occupied by renters. In Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake City the majority of housing units are occupied by renters.

Candidates interested in learning about the concerns of renters, and ways to address those concerns, should read the proposed Anti-Displacement Plan for Salt Lake City that is currently undergoing the public comment process. This anti-displacement strategy emerged from a study of displacement and gentrification that found some startling facts about the pressures renters are facing right now. 

Over half of renters in Salt Lake City are paying more than they can sustainably afford. These renters worry about being displaced from their homes because there are no “more affordable” neighborhoods where they can move. Some renters are displaced by new construction, but more are being forced out of their homes and communities by rapidly rising rents. 

Displacement caused by increased rents is the leading driver of increased homelessness. The United States Government Accountability Office has estimated that an increase of $100 per month to the median rent in a city will increase homelessness in that city by 9%. In 2018 the average rent in Salt Lake County was $1,153. By 2022 the average rent in that county had increased to $1,623. Given that sharp increase to the cost of living, it should not be surprising that seniors and other people with fixed and limited incomes are being displaced and pushed into homelessness. 

Salt Lake City’s proposed Anti-Displacement Strategy presents several policies city leaders can adopt to address this problem. Crossroads Urban Center urges municipal candidates to focus on three of them. The first is to develop a tenant relocation assistance program to help people whose homes are destroyed by new development. Helping people who are displaced by gentrification to find a new home and avoid homelessness should be something all city resident agree is important. 

The second proposal is the passage of “community benefit policy” so that when developers apply to a city for a zoning variance there is a process in place to work to preserve or replace affordable housing units destroyed by that development. It is time for local leaders to understand that there are only a limited number of opportunities to produce and preserve affordable housing. Every time affordable housing units are destroyed or projects with no affordable units are built, the number of opportunities for improving housing affordability decrease. We are running out of options for addressing this problem. 

The third policy is probably the most important — creating a new funding source to produce and preserve affordable housing units. There is no such thing as free housing construction or rehabilitation. We have neglected to build and maintain adequate affordable housing for decades, so it will take several years to solve this problem. Fortunately, this is an issue voters across the country have demonstrated they support by passing ballot initiatives to improve housing affordability. Local leaders in Utah should give their voters the opportunity to increase funding to solve this problem.

Crossroads Urban Center is not an affordable housing developer; we are not asking for money to fund our own projects. The reason we care about this is that we operate two emergency food pantries in Salt Lake City and we are serving more people per day right now than we have at any time since we first opened our doors in 1966. Low income renters are struggling, and some are sliding into homelessness. Local officials need to do what they can to address gentrification and displacement before it is too late.

Bill Tibbitts is the deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center.