Though the Utah Legislature gave a record-breaking $70 million this year to fight affordable housing shortages and homelessness, advocates said the sum fell short of what they hoped for.

And critics worry legislation meant to shore up emergency beds for the cold winters and hot summers will get the state back to its old “warehouse” homelessness model.

Funding criticism

This year’s budget for housing and homelessness surpassed last year’s record $50 million, which business leaders matched with another $680 million.

But the $70 million allocated this year — $55 million for deeply affordable housing competitive grants 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.

State leaders say they hope the funding given this year will help chip away at homelessness, but they expect to continue spending each year.

“So, I can look at it as a glass half empty or glass half full. I’m a glass half-full person. This is more money than we’ve ever gotten before,” Cox said last week when asked if he was disappointed in the lower-than-requested funding.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, noted the Legislature made “significant strides” in both housing affordability and water preservation.

“But I would actually say we’re probably just getting started, there’s going to be a lot more around both of those issues,” he said.

The session ended without lawmakers granting the pleas of housing and homelessness advocates for more money.

Utah Housing Coalition Executive Director Tara Rollins said “never has the state been in a better position financially to invest federal and state funds for housing people can afford.”

Shawn McMillan, executive director of First Step House, said that developers and nonprofits need the support that would have been provided by the funding.

“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.

He urged the Legislature to “bring back their focus” on the “extraordinarily powerful tools that are needed.”

Responding to the criticism from the Utah Housing Coalition on the amount spent for housing compared to tax cuts, Wilson emphasized this year’s and last year’s funding combined is “well over $100 million dollars.”

“A lot of the money that we put into affordable housing a year ago is still being taken out, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to us to put more money than the system could actually absorb,” Wilson said.

SB238 establishes the COVID-19 Homeless Housing and Services Grant Program, which is receiving $55 million for deeply affordable housing for those making no more than 30% of the area median household income.

The program will put an emphasis on case management for homeless individuals when divvying out the funds, as bill sponsor Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, described a lack of follow-through by the state as one of the issues allowing people to return to the streets.

Though he initially requested $127 million to fund the bill, he said of the $55 million: “We’re happy, we’ll take that, we’ll move forward with it.”

When asked on the Senate floor whether the money will be enough to solve homelessness in the state after millions of dollars already dedicated in past years, Anderegg said that’s not likely.

“This is something we’re going to have to come back next year and see if we can figure out some ongoing sources,” he added.

If the funding is “going well and solving a problem,” Wilson said the Legislature will continue to provide resources “and work on it” next year.

Cox said legislative leaders are “correct that there was some money from last year that we’re still working through.”

“And it wasn’t a ‘No.’ It was, ‘Hey, let’s do this. And let’s see what’s working and then let’s come back and do and do more next year.’ So I’m very optimistic about where we’re headed and grateful that the Legislature put that much money aside for this issue,” Cox added.

Jose Alejandro Vargas Nocelo, 54, who has been staying at shelters in the Rio Grande area for six months, is pictured in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 7, 2022. “The government is nice, but they need to build more shelters,” Nocelo said. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Will more emergency beds overburden neighborhoods?

The Legislature passed HB440, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, which is meant to foster cooperation between cities in Salt Lake County by asking them to submit a plan to the state’s office of homelessness for providing adequate emergency shelter space well in advance of cold winter weather.

If no plan is submitted or deemed sufficient, the bill has a “plan B,” Eliason has said, where the state would flex the capacity at existing shelters to meet the expected demands.

But Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has contended the bill doesn’t actually provide an incentive to other cities to step up, because they know the bill allows the state to flex capacity to meet the need.

Ahead of the bill’s passage, it drew criticism from the Pioneer Park Coalition, which also expressed concern about the flex aspect of the bill that would allow shelters to increase their capacity during emergency shortages.

Tyler Clancy, president of Pioneer Park Coalition, said that could bring more crime to already-burdened neighborhoods.

“A cursory glance at either the Geraldine King women’s center on 700 South or the Gail Miller Resource Center on Paramount Avenue reveals how empty the promises to prevent loitering, camping, drug dealing and violent crime were,” Clancy said in a statement.

“Residents and business owners from the neighboring communities have spoken out in town halls and even in legislative committee meetings about their own disappointing and dangerous experiences living near the (homeless resource centers),” he added.

Clancy contended that increasing limits in those centers will put occupants at risk and “brazenly break the promises made to local communities who agreed to take in the resource centers in their neighborhoods.”

Mendenhall told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards that affordable and deeply affordable housing is one of the best solutions to the state’s homelessness crisis. Homeless resource centers and shelters can only do so much, she said, because some people need more help than a temporary shelter can provide.

In some cases, she said, people give up after struggling to find space in shelters, opting instead for the certainly of tents or other makeshift shelters.

“The fact that a lot of people say no is what keeps me up at night,” Mendenhall said.

Jose Alejandro Vargas Nocelo goes through his documents outside of the Weigand Homeless Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 7, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Housing affordability

The state also passed the unfunded HB462, which requires cities with public transit hubs to develop plans for moderate- and low-income housing within a one-mile radius of those locations.

The bill also requires cities and towns to share housing data with the state to bolster the state’s ability to track inventory.

HB462 originally sought more than $100 million for the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund and the Rural Housing Fund. But sponsor Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, pushed the bill forward in hopes it will get funded next year.

“As we all know, there’s a housing crisis going on in Utah right now. We have some 50,000 more families than we have places for them to live,” Waldrip said during a committee hearing for the bill.

“We have some very siloed information within our cities, within our counties, about what housing products we have, how much we have, what our affordable housing options are,” Waldrip said.

While the Wasatch Front is virtually “out of” land to build new housing on, rural areas don’t have the infrastructure in place for appropriate housing, Waldrip said.

Those two issues need to be dealt with in different ways, he added.

Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said the bill is building on lessons learned by city and town leaders throughout the state as they have tried to pave the way for development of moderate- or low-income housing.

The bill will reward cities that are going “above and beyond” the minimum requirements by offering them prioritization for certain state infrastructure funds, Diehl said. If a city chooses not to plan for moderate-income housing, they’re ineligible for those state transportation dollars under the bill.

“The state of Utah is trying to better align how the state is spending finite infrastructure dollars with their partners on their ground, locally,” Diehl said.

The bill ultimately passed the Legislature — without receiving its requested $100 million funding — despite opposition from some critics and lawmakers who expressed concern about mandating cities to build where it may not make sense for them.

A woman walks on Rio Grande Street in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 7, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News