Last summer, conditions in the Rio Grande neighborhood near downtown Salt Lake City had deteriorated so much in the eyes of officials that they felt they had to go on the offensive. Homelessness and drug addiction were rampant. A string of violent incidents raised fears about safety in the area. The Utah Speaker of the House commented that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider calling in the National Guard.
And while it stopped short of calling in federal troops, the state’s response still had the air of a military campaign. In August, officials launched a police surge aimed at arresting the worst repeat criminal offenders in the area, the first phase of what they were calling Operation Rio Grande. In the second and third phases of the operation, officials said, they’d get people into drug and alcohol recovery and, eventually, find them jobs.
Months later, even after criticism of the approach and reports that the Rio Grande homeless community had begun illegally camping in adjacent neighborhoods, officials claimed that the strategy was starting to work. Violence was down, the number of recovery beds was up, and a handful of people had found employment through the state’s “Dignity of Work” efforts. The whole operation was expected to last two years and cost $67 million.
Some officials, while acknowledging a need for targeted action in Rio Grande, say the operation illustrates the need to address the broader issue of housing affordability.
“When we get these people into [shelters], and they work to deal with their mental illness issues and their drug issues, and then they get out,” says Representative Joel Briscoe, a Salt Lake City delegate to the Utah House of Representatives, “where do they go?”
This week, the Utah legislature is considering a series of proposals aimed at addressing the housing affordability issue. Two bills from Republican members of the Utah House of Representatives would establish a statewide Commission on Housing Affordability and require cities to create and publicize plans to meet moderate-income housing development goals. A third, sponsored by Briscoe, a Democrat, would dedicate $100 million in bond proceeds to affordable housing construction. The bond measure made it through a key House committee last week, but as of press time, sources said the fate of the proposal—whether it would pass in both the state House and Senate, and at what size—was uncertain. (Update: Utah’s legislative session ended at midnight Thursday. News reports suggest the housing bond measure did not pass. We will update this story when more information is available.)
Still, housing advocates say the legislature’s efforts are an encouraging sign that the state is beginning to bring more urgency to affordability issues in Utah cities, where housing for extremely low-income renters is particularly tight. According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the state has a shortage of 47,000 housing units that would be affordable for families earning up to 30 percent of Area Median Income. Only 31 affordable units are available for every 100 extremely low-income families, according to the group.
“I see there’s a much better understanding than in years past,” says Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition. “The whole homelessness piece and the opioid crisis has really blended to have the conversation open up in a broader way.”
The population is growing, too. Rep. Briscoe cited a recent report showing the state’s population growing even without counting in-migrants. And Rollins noted that the governor’s recently announced plan to create 25,000 jobs in rural Utah has been met with some questions about where those workers would live.
“I think that has opened up a conversation in the rural areas, for rural legislators …” Rollins says. “People are starting to put a face on that 47,000. It’s not people that aren’t willing to work. These are service workers. We depend on tourism.”
For Rollins and Briscoe, the bond issue, which would put money into a housing trust fund for the development of affordable units, is the most critical piece of the puzzle. But Briscoe says that it’s been a tough sell in the House, because the state has a big budget surplus this year and it’s been tough to convince other legislators that bonding for anything is a good idea. He doesn’t expect his colleagues to pass a general-fund allocation at that scale either.
“We would take cash, but I don’t think they’re gonna drop $100 million cash on it,” Briscoe says.
Another bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Steve Eliason, would have generated money for new homeless shelters by imposing a fee on cities that had less than the state average of affordable housing. Late in the week, the bill was altered in the Senate, removing the fee and simply allocating money for homeless shelters in the general fund. Eliason did not respond to requests for an interview.
But whatever ends up happening with the bond, Rollins says that the measures to create a statewide housing commission and compel cities to make housing plans will codify the focus on affordability and help smooth the way for more solutions down the line. Rollins says the Utah Housing Coalition has been pushing to have the commission formalized for a long time. And she thinks that the state governor’s office needs to dedicate more attention specifically to housing. Currently, the state’s work on housing falls under the Department of Workforce Services, which Rollins says responds to certain housing issues, but doesn’t put forward a vision for how to improve the state’s housing situation.
“It needs to be looked at in a different way,” Rollins says. “That to me is the next step. The political will could have been here a long time ago if we had somebody who was talking about housing. We need to have housing at the table of the governor, and that’s not what’s happening. We have talented staff, but we need leadership.”
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.