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Trouble ahead for big $35 million affordable housing bill

Bill clears Utah Senate, but sponsor expects fight in House for cash

Darren Williams, director of the Good Samaritan Program, left, greets Gov. Gary Herbert, right, and Matt Melville, Catholic Community Services director of homeless services, as they tour the kitchen in St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Utahns have the option to donate to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund on their state tax forms.
Darren Williams, director of the Good Samaritan Program, left, greets Gov. Gary Herbert, right, and Matt Melville, Catholic Community Services director of homeless services, as they tour the kitchen in St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Utahns have the option to donate to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund on their state tax forms.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert spent Wednesday morning urging Utahns to consider donating a portion of their tax refund to homelessness — and yet the Utah Legislature may go another year without prioritizing money for a bill aimed at preventing homelessness in the first place.

A bill seeking $35 million for affordable housing programs is making its way through the Legislature, but its sponsor, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, is still wrangling support for its substantial fiscal note, which remains uncertain.

“It’s still very much in the air,” Anderegg told the Deseret News.

Legislative leaders, pointing to budget challenges that linger after the collapse of tax reform, have given no promises on whether affordable housing programs will be given any money this year.

Still, Anderegg’s SB39 cleared a major hurdle Wednesday when the Senate advanced it to the House on a narrow, 16-11 vote. Anderegg won support from his fellow senators, but not without some turning their noses at its substantial price tag, questioning whether the state should be funding affordable housing programs.

Nonetheless, Anderegg, who co-chairs the state’s Commission on Housing Affordability, scrapped together enough votes to take the bill to the House — where he expects similar pushback. But he aims to get the bill to a final vote, where he says the fiscal note will be hashed out amid budget discussions perhaps late next week.

“It’s going to be a hard sell,” Anderegg said. “We’ll see. I think it will be a close vote. I’m still confident we’ve got the numbers ... but the size of the fiscal note is worrisome to some people.”

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, told the Deseret News he’s not sure if there will be any support for affordable housing in the House.

“Are there people who want to do something for affordable housing? Yes,” Gibson said, but he pointed to funding imbalance issues that persist after the collapse of tax reform, and did not have answers of whether Anderegg’s bill would get any money.

“Our general fund is jammed up,” Gibson said.

Though Anderegg acknowledged getting the full $35 million is a steep hill to climb, he said he’s not going to give up.

“We’ll fight for everything we can get,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we will get something. I hope it’s not a pittance.”

Anderegg, a self-described “conservative, borderline Libertarian” Republican whose taken political heat for running the bill, said he’s run into some “unfortunate” issues with this bill over the last few years amid budget issues persisting without tax reform.

“It’s unfortunate, as a Republican standing up and taking the charge on this, that we’ve run into such difficult financial tax issue,” he said.

For years, housing advocates have lobbied for new housing dollars as experts warn of a growing housing “crisis” in Utah and nationwide, pointing to housing and rent prices that continue to climb with no end in sight, squeezing low- and moderate-income households out of the market.

In recent years, lawmakers have prioritized tens of millions of dollars toward homelessness — including over $20 million to help build three new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake County — but haven’t set aside new money for affordable housing programs. Last year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill to encourage local governments to plan and zone for affordable housing, but stripped it of its $24 million fiscal note.

Since then, prominent homelessness advocate Pamela Atkinson hasn’t given up, and she has said she had been given assurances from legislative leaders they would prioritize affordable housing this year. But now more than half way through the session and after revenue projections have been released, no legislative leaders have made commitments for the bill’s fiscal note.

Atkinson said Wednesday she has meetings set up with legislative leaders to lobby for the dollars, but she expects if the bill does get any funds, she doesn’t think it will be the full $35 million.

“I’m not frightfully sure we’re going to get the full $35 million,” Atkinson said, but added she’s hopeful there are “many” lawmakers who realize that by not funding affordable housing, they are “holding up the pipeline” to move people out of homelessness resource centers, which have been lingering at- or near-capacity since their opening last fall.

She said it’s “disappointing” housing advocates continue to struggle to get legislators to prioritize affordable housing “because we’ve been promised for the last five years that we would get money.”

“But I can understand where the legislators are coming from and things might have been a little different if the tax reform bill had passed,” Atkinson added. “But we’re trying to give the facts to the decisionmakers.”

The bill is estimated to help build about 2,300 affordable units and help between 3,000 and 4,000 Utahns in a rental assistance program, Atkinson said.

Earlier Wednesday, the governor joined Atkinson at Catholic Community Services’ St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall for a news conference urging Utahns to donate even just $2 from their tax refund to homelessness services by selecting the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Account while filing their taxes.

Herbert, who included $20 million for affordable housing in his proposed budget, told the Deseret News efforts are ongoing to try and find solutions for affordable housing with both developers and local governments, but it’s up to the Legislature on how much money is available.

“They’re the ones that control every dollar,” Herbert said. “Clearly we have some challenges as far as how much money we have discretionary to spend on affordable housing.”

Herbert said he hopes “we get the $20 million,” but if not, “we’re still going to move ahead here with stakeholders” including the private sector to see if there are any other ways to incentivize more affordable housing and ensure government doesn’t “get in the way” with zoning laws.

“So we’re not going to stop,” Herbert said.

Other bills related to homelessness that are being considered on Capitol Hill include a newly filed HB394, sponsored by Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, that would create a new position of state homeless services director to oversee all state homeless programs and funding.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, is also sponsoring a bill, SB165, that would require local homeless coordinating committees to develop emergency response plans to prevent risk to health or safety of homeless.

It comes after Salt Lake City moved to open an emergency overflow shelter following the closure of the Road Home’s downtown shelter, which led to fears homeless people would be left with nowhere to go in the dead of winter. SB165 won approval from a Senate panel Wednesday and is heading to the full Senate for consideration.