With more than $2 billion in budget surplus, Utah homeless advocates urged the Legislature to invest significantly in deeply affordable housing during a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday.

But Senate legislative leaders, when pressed by reporters soon after Tuesday’s press conference, said it’s unlikely there will be any more money left in the budget to put toward affordable housing or homelessness.

Advocates spoke in favor of HB462, which would allocate more than $100 million to the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund and the Rural Housing Fund. Nonprofits, religious organizations and philanthropic initiatives have long led the way when it comes to affordable housing, said Utah Housing Coalition executive director Tara Rollins, but it’s “time for our legislative leadership to become part of this partnership.”

“Never has the state been in a better position financially to invest federal and state funds for housing people can afford. Opportunity starts at home with a safe place to lie one’s head down at night,” she said.

Funding for HB462, sponsored by Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, was not prioritized in the initial proposed budget last week. SB238, another bill sponsored by Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, asked for nearly $128 million to address homelessness and would have created a grant program to coordinate wraparound services — specifically for case workers — but the budget currently funds only $55 million for the grants.

Legislative leaders also prioritized $15 million to match private dollars for the preservation and rehabilitation of affordable housing units for low-income individuals through the Utah Housing Preservation fund.

But that $70 million — the $55 million combined with $15 million for housing preservation — still falls far short of the $128 million Gov. Spencer Cox recommended in his budget for housing and homelessness programs.

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Thanks to federal stimulus provided during the pandemic, Utah has more to spend than usual, but lawmakers have cautioned against using all of the surplus to fund ongoing projects, citing the need to protect against future economic downturns.

Advocates urged lawmakers to fully fund both HB462 and SB238, although the Senate already approved the watered-down $55 million on Monday.

Reading from a statement by First United Methodist Church’s the Rev. AJ Bush, the Rev. Steve Klemz said that “who we are as a state” is reflected by policies and budget priorities. The American Rescue Plan Act has provided a “once in a lifetime” chance to address homelessness and affordable housing.

The Rev. Steve Klemz, retired pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, speaks about the need for affordable housing outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“To slash proposed funds for those who are in need of deeply affordable housing, while providing tax cuts to the wealthiest among us to slash those funds, I believe, rips at the very moral fabric of our state’s hope to live in dignity and equity,” the statement said.

Shawn McMillan, executive director of First Step House, said that developers and nonprofits need the support that would come from fully funding both bills.

“These are incredibly powerful tools that allow developers — especially nonprofit developers, who are most interested in developing housing for these specialty populations — to cover the cost of services, which are absolutely essential,” McMillan said, urging the Legislature to “bring back their focus” on the “extraordinarily powerful tools that are needed.”

“Without sufficient state investment in affordable housing, our communities will fracture,” said Chase Thomas, the executive director for the Alliance for a Better Utah. “Parents will struggle to provide necessities for their children. Marginalized communities will continue to be pushed out of our cities. And we will fail in our moral mandate to protect and lift up the vulnerable among us.”

He said Utah needs to prioritize the housing crisis as a state, after a “rush to prioritize another year of tax cuts at the beginning of the session, only ... to deprioritize affordable housing funding at the end.”

Speaking through a translator, Silvia Ramirez said affordable housing makes it possible for her — along with her husband and two children — to have a stable living situation.

“I am asking you today ... to put aside more funding for deeply affordable housing and affordable housing for the state of Utah to ensure that families like mine can live strong, healthy and secure with our children as well,” Ramirez said.

According to data provided by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Utah has a shortage of more than 45,000 rental homes that are affordable for extremely low income renters — those whose incomes are at or below the poverty line or 30% or the median income for their region. Nearly 71% of extremely low income earners spend more than half of their total income on housing costs and utilities.

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Senate leaders: No more money for housing, homelessness

Utah’s skyrocketing home prices is one of the biggest issues facing the state, but Senate leaders told reporters in two separate media availabilities on Monday and Tuesday they weren’t likely to fully fund the budget requests.

Asked if what’s been budgeted is enough, Senate Budget Chairman Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said Monday that lawmakers won’t have a solution for the housing market’s wild prices.

“The only thing that’s going to fix the housing market is probably some kind of a downturn,” he said. “We’ve always been a free market economy. And it’s very difficult, and it may well mean that more people are going to live in their parents’ basement before this is finished.”

Stevenson added Utahns are living “in a very difficult time, and all I can really tell you is I’m really glad I’m not trying to buy a house right now.”

On Tuesday, pressed more on what’s been budgeted for housing and homelessness, Stevenson and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, again said there likely would not be any more money.

“We think we funded what’s needed,” Adams said, defending legislative leaders’ prioritization. “If you spend money without accountability, that doesn’t get the results you want. ... We’re trying to get the money out that we can, what can be spent. There will always be more needs, and we’ll look at what the requests are, but we think we’ve spent quite a bit of money and enough money to (fund programs).”

Adams added that $500,000 is included in the budget to fund two or three full-time employees to help homelessness and housing initiatives.

“We’re keenly aware of the affordable housing issue. We’re keenly aware of the homeless issue. We think we’re responding to it very well and we’re spending what we can and we think we’re responsible in what we’ve done,” Adams said.

Asked about the statement that providing a tax cut without fully funding deeply affordable housing “rips at the very moral fabric of our state’s hope to live in dignity and equity,” Adams said he’s not surprised “everybody wants more.”

“It really doesn’t matter how much money we spend, this will be a record budget, everybody wants more,” Adams said, adding lawmakers are also responding to their constituents who “want less taxes.”

“We’re responding to two sets of constituencies, those who want us to spend more and those who want us to spend less,” Adams said. “We think we’ve balanced it pretty well.”

Stevenson told reporters, “I want you all to think about something,” pointing to when the state spent over $65 million on Operation Rio Grande, an effort to root out crime in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood around what was once the Road Home’s downtown shelter before it was shut down.

He wasn’t complimentary of the effort.

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“Let’s go get in my truck and go for a ride and you show me what we accomplished with that $65 million. And I’m going to tell you, I don’t think an awful lot,” Stevenson said. “We spread the problem, spread it around. We probably ought to get to the root of it before we just sit back and throw money at it.”

Stevenson said lawmakers have “looked very hard” to no avail for any additional money that could be spent on homelessness and housing.

“We’ve swept the cracks, and what we’re down to is we’re down to realigning,” Stevenson said. “I can find all the money you want for homeless services if you take this budget and tell me who you want me to take it away from. Because that’s what we’re down to.”

How will the Legislature fund affordable housing?

Anderegg, the sponsor of SB238, said he worked with the state’s homelessness services leader Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah Senate president, on the bill.

Speaking on the Senate floor about the lower-than-requested funding, Anderegg said, “We’re happy, we’ll take that, we’ll move forward with it.”

The bill establishes a grant process to help properly align wraparound services for the homeless, most specifically case worker services, Anderegg said. He said it’s an effort to get to the root issues for those who are chronically homeless as a case worker will “correlate” them with the proper services to help stabilize them. 

“We can break the cycle, and that’s what this is doing,” he said. 

A portion of chronically homeless residents will continue to need permanent assisted housing forever, he said. 

There are several hundred people who need permanent housing throughout the state, and more housing is needed, according to the senator. He said the bill will help ensure they also receive help from a case worker.

He anticipates the bill will prompt more reporting from homelessness service providers to inform the Legislature’s efforts.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, asked if the state is “doing any good” with the resources already given to stemming the issue. 

“Has it gotten any better? Are we going to be here four years from now spending another $55 million?” Weiler asked. 

Anderegg acknowledged the state is “hacking away at branches.” Despite millions of dollars spent, “where we have fallen down” is not following through with case management, causing homeless individuals to “fall through the cracks again.” 

“We have made strides, we have better service centers than we’ve ever had before,” Anderegg said, adding that the state needs to do a better job following through. 

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, asked how the state can manage ongoing success with just a one-time appropriation,

Anderegg said it won’t be possible. “This is something we’re going to have to come back next year and see if we can figure out some ongoing sources,” he said. 

The bill passed the Senate 27-1 on Monday, with only McCay opposing it.

Contributing: Ashley Imlay, Katie McKellar