SALT LAKE CITY — A room full of faith leaders from across Utah sat silent as the Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson, pastor of the Granger Community Christian Church in West Valley City, began her remarks with a staggering number.
“Seven hundred and seventeen,” she said.
She let the number hang in the air before repeating it again — slower.
“I saw that number and I bowed my head,” she said.
That’s how many children whose families came to the Granger Community Christian Church’s food pantry for food at least three times during December, the Rev. Golphin-Wilkerson said.
“They represent thousands of children across our state,” she said. “Seven hundred and seventeen is the number of children we saw in one month whose families are impacted by the cost of housing.”
The Rev. Golphin-Wilkerson was among dozens of faith leaders, local officials from up and down the Wasatch Front, and homeless and housing advocates who gathered in a boardroom on Capitol Hill Thursday to rally support for affordable housing money — particularly to reduce child homelessness across Utah.
“The lack of affordable housing has a ripple effect in our community,” the Rev. Golphin-Wilkerson said. “When housing costs are higher than families can afford, those children risk becoming homeless.”
Pastors, housing authority officials from Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, and Weber counties, anti-poverty advocates, and homeless advocates all crammed into the boardroom the day they planned to urge their legislators to support SB39, a bill aiming to appropriate $35 million for affordable housing programs after last year’s effort fell flat.
The bill, advocates estimate, will create around 2,300 affordable housing units and provide rental assistance to over 3,000 households.
The Ending Child Homelessness Day, sponsored by the Coalition of Religious Communities, drew leaders from faith organizations ranging from Ogden to Provo, and attracted proponents of social programs, like Medicaid expansion, that took years to gain traction in the Utah Legislature but have finally found legs after years of pushing. Affordable housing, is another one of those issues advocates hope lawmakers will begin seriously prioritizing.
But legislative leaders have told the Deseret News they aren’t making any promises for affordable housing money this year after the collapse of last year’s tax reform package. They have said without tax reform — which was supposed to fix a structural imbalance between sales tax and income tax revenue — there will be a strain on general fund money.
Even the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, told housing advocates in their rally Thursday there’s likely a challenge ahead for maybe even a portion of that $35 million request. Until budget revenue numbers are finalized in late February, Anderegg said lawmakers won’t be sure what general fund money will be available this year.
“We have some commitments, but with what’s happening with our budget and our budget imbalance — just being honest — it’s going to be hard to get,” he said.
Anderegg said if he and the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, “tie it to real numbers and real people” in each area of the state, they “can sell that.”
“But I don’t want anyone walking out of here thinking that $35 million is a sure thing,” he said. “We’re going to go fight for it to be sure, we’re going to fight for every penny. But we do have some legitimate issues.”
Utah faces an estimated gap of roughly 54,000 housing units affecting a trifecta of markets, including new construction, rentals and existing homes. That gap is likely to grow until another economic downturn, according the Salt Lake Chamber’s Housing Gap Coalition.
As Utah’s housing market continues to boil, housing prices are expected to continue rising. Meanwhile, more and more Utahns are being priced out. As they become increasingly cost burdened for housing, they become increasingly financially unstable, and they strain to pay for basic family needs like food or transportation, the Rev. Golphin-Wilkerson said.
“These families are literally one flat tire, one car problem, one case of the cold or the flu, one unexpected time off work for any reason will be the means or the reason they cannot make enough hours to pay their rent,” she said. “This issue has a cascading impact on our community across the health, education, school performance and general well-being of our children.”
In Weber County — a county that recently saw a disproportionate increase in homelessness as most of state resources have been focused on bolstering Salt Lake County’s homeless system — 30% of the homeless population are families with children, according to Andi Beadles, executive director of the Weber Housing Authority.
“Housing affordability,” Beadles said, “is one of the greatest, unaddressed threats to the economic prosperity in Utah.”