Lack of affordable housing displaces thousands of Utah families

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Editor’s note: this story pairs with “First housing shortage in decades taking a toll on Utah buyers, renters”

Utah’s housing shortage is affecting families around the state who are in desperate search of affordable options.

Even as new properties are built, one part of the housing market continues to be left behind: affordable housing.

Utah County Housing Authority Director Lynell Smith said the numbers aren’t looking good for those who qualify for programs like Section 8.

“Utah County has about 45,000 renter households, and 27,000 of those have income at or below low-income, which is about $35,000 for a family of four,” Smith said.

With the population of Utah County expected to match that of Salt Lake by 2040, Smith said the shortage of affordable units is already dire. In Utah County, there is a lack of about 15,000 units that are both affordable and available. The total is about 45,000 statewide.

Recent data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed a low-income individual would have to work 76 hours per week to afford the average one-bedroom apartment in Utah. For two bedrooms, that number rises to 94 hours a week.

To afford that two-bedroom apartment by working an of average 40 hours per week, the person would need to make at least $17.05 an hour.

Smith said working so many hours just isn’t a possibility for many families, especially single parents who are working as hard as they can and are hardly able to see their families. She’s seen what renting is like in Utah County and describes it as a “landlord’s market.”

Cameron Perkins and his wife have faced the difficulty of trying to secure a place to live firsthand. They only found their current apartment because they were lucky enough to know someone selling a contract.

“If you don’t know someone, you just have to hope that you can get there first,” Perkins said.

With such an enormous waiting list, there aren’t many options for families seeking an affordable unit, Smith said. Utah County has no homeless shelter, and if the household doesn’t have extended family to stay with, there’s only so much they can do.

Community Action helps to provide temporary motel vouchers, and the Housing Authority works with the families to find any other option to keep them from becoming homeless.

“Less units are becoming available, and rent increases are changing,” Smith said. “They used to be 3 to 4 percent a year; now they’re going up 6 to 8 percent a year.”

Smith said Utah County appears to be a safe, happy place to the average person, but thousands of people live without knowing where they’ll sleep at night.

“Most families are only one step away from becoming displaced or homeless,” Smith said. “If you lose your job or you’re underemployed, then you’re not able to afford your rent that the landlord just raised $200 because the market could afford it, but you can’t support that. Unexpected surgery, domestic violence, divorce or death, mental health issues without a support system — and then you’re homeless.”

Local communities have the power to change the affordable housing shortage, Smith said. If each new complex dedicated just 3 to 5 percent of its units to being affordable, trends would start to change. She encouraged communities to support affordable housing options and to ask elected officials to do so, as well. Smith said communities can work together with agencies to find a solution that works.

“I think a lot of the time the community doesn’t realize how big the problem is because it doesn’t affect them personally,” Smith said. “Until it’s their parents, their child or their neighbor, they don’t realize how hard it is to find a place to live.”

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