Affordable housing is essential for healthy, sustainable communities. Everyone deserves to have a safe, secure and affordable place to live. Issues concerning housing affordability are affected by a wide range of circumstances.
The Department of Workforce Services works to support Utah’s affordable housing needs through the Housing and Community Development Division, where more than 40 state and federal programs are administered to improve the quality of life for communities and citizens throughout the state. I can assure you that housing concerns are a top priority for Gov. Spencer Cox, the Utah Legislature and the department.
An underlying concern is that housing cost burdens for households with lower income levels continue to increase considerably. Affordable rental housing for moderate-income renters in Utah is becoming increasingly scarce. Utah’s rental housing gaps stem from an increasing mismatch between renter households and the housing units that they can potentially afford. An affordable housing shortage occurs when there are more renters at a particular income threshold than there are affordable housing units.
According to the Utah Code, “Moderate-income housing means housing occupied or reserved for occupancy by households with a gross household income equal to or less than 80% of the median gross income for households of the same size in the county where the city is located.”
The Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS) data show that nearly two-thirds of renter households in Utah had incomes below 80% of area median income, categorized as low-income, very low-income or extremely low-income.
The State of Utah Affordable Housing Report for 2020 cites data from the U.S. Census Bureau that indicates excess supply of housing; however, this data does not reveal the reasons why these units are vacant and where they are located throughout the state. Unfortunately, the data lags and does not take into account the current real estate market and its impact on housing supply.
The report also identifies a shortage of 46,470 rental homes that are affordable and available for extremely low-income renters. In addition, 183,220 Utah low-income households spend more than half of their income on housing, as wages have not kept up with rapidly increasing housing costs.
We also know, through research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, that Utah has a housing gap between new home permits and new households of roughly 45,000 units over the past decade, this results in lower vacancy rates, doubled up households and higher housing costs.
Clearly, we have an affordable housing crisis that is reaching well beyond low-income households and pricing out many Utahns. The good news is the state and the philanthropic community have stepped up in a historic manner to provide an unprecedented amount of funding to support efforts to address housing affordability.
The Legislature allocated $35 million for affordable housing during this year’s General Session and another $35 million in this recent special session. This funding will be leveraged with contributions from the philanthropic community and additional investments to further magnify the impact.
Utah’s affordable housing situation is a crisis that is not just a Utah concern but a national problem. But in Utah, it is exacerbated by the fact that people want to live here, both those who grow up in the state and those who visit. Our economy has rebounded better than any other state after the pandemic and people want to live near our ski slopes and other amazing outdoor attractions. Utah is no longer a secret and the state’s growth indicates it.
Another factor that makes Utah attractive is our sense of community and how we tackle challenges. We have shown this throughout the years with the 2002 Olympics, uniting to address homelessness, rallying to clean up after an earthquake or wind storm and, most recently, how the state responded to the pandemic. To tackle the crisis of housing affordability, the state will need to come together once again.
This is happening with the Utah Commission on Housing Affordability. The commission is made up of state leadership, local municipalities, housing authorities, developers, real estate representatives and housing advocates. I’ve witnessed the legislative chairs of the committee bring this group together and even with conflicting interests, unite the commission under the banner of addressing housing affordability. Utah needs more affordable housing options to support our working middle class and to create opportunities that will allow our children to live in the state we love so much.
The Department of Workforce Services will continue to support Cox and his priorities, which focus on improving the quality of life of all Utahns. The department will also continue to support the Commission on Housing Affordability and ensure the funds entrusted to us for housing are appropriately accounted for and distributed to programs that will improve affordability.
Casey Cameron, is executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.