The definition of affordable housing varies depending on who or what organization is defining it, and that is a sticking point for the current difficulties of fixing local housing problems.
What affordable housing looks like was the topic of the Affordable Housing Summit, held Saturday in Orem. The event was held at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and was sponsored by Orem city, Mountainland Continuum of Care and the McCandless Family.
Guest speaker June Hiatt, policy director at the Utah Housing Coalition, said that it doesn’t matter if a person is making $700 or $10,000 a month — no more than 30% of that income should be spent on housing, according to government standards. That includes not only rent or mortgage, but also utilities and any HOA fees combined.
Hiatt said that if a person is spending 50% or more of their monthly income on housing, they are considered cost burdened. More people are finding they are in that category with rent and mortgages continuing to explode and wages staying stagnant; and the disparity between the two continues to grow.
After the 30% housing cost, people are using 20% of their income on transportation. The other 50% goes to food, medical, schooling, clothing and any other purchases.
There are 51,000 low-income renters in Utah, Hiatt said. Of those, 67% are cost burdened. They have no disposable income.
“Not having disposable income affects the economic outlook of the state,” Hiatt said.
Data shows that 55,000 more units are currently needed for the people in Utah waiting on lists and who, for the meantime, are sharing other home living spaces. That includes children living in their parents’ homes with their own families.
One of the difficult aspects for those who work in non-profit groups helping individuals to find affordable housing is that fact that many people don’t believe the need is as real as indicated.
However, the need is real enough that Senate Bill 34, which requires that cities plan for affordable housing, passed in this past state legislative session. Orem and Provo are both working on in-depth programs to fulfill requirements set by the state.
Another area of housing not getting adequate attention is senior citizens housing and housing for those with Americans with Disability Act issues.
The affordable housing issue is becoming more political as well. In a national affordable housing survey, 61% said they would vote for city council candidates who make housing one of their platform issues.
While there are several federal grant programs to help with housing, it is not enough, Hiatt said.
Bill Street with Colliers International said there is state and federal money available — but it rarely makes it to this area, kept instead in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties.
“We need to bring state allocated monies over the Point of the Mountain,” Street said.
Hiatt agreed, saying, “They forget we have a massively rural community and we need to make sure this gets balanced through the whole state.”
Hiatt and others at the summit said it comes down to proper zoning and developers willing to develop affordable housing.
Residents must refrain from the not-in-my-backyard attitude, and builders need to be willing to build a portion of their complexes or developments to meet affordable housing standards.
Pam Liston of Provo Housing Authority said she knew a person whose rent went from $600 to $850 in just one year.
“It used to be $30 a year,” Liston said. “It’s frustrating as an (affordable housing) provider. It is a crisis across the board.”
Karen McCandless, director of Community Action and Food Bank, said she is seeing more senior citizens coming in for food assistance because they can’t afford housing and food on their fixed incomes.
“There is a real need for senior housing,” McCandless said, adding that those coming out of incarceration also face housing problems because landlords are reluctant to rent to them.
Provo Housing Authority has a yearlong waiting list of people seeking affordable housing. For seniors, that is a six month wait, Liston said.
Brad Bishop of Self-help Homes said they are building 1,400 square feet homes with main floor living. Young families who are working on cleaning up credit and make about a $34,000 a year can qualify for one of the homes.
The homes are jointly built by a group of families that help build each other’s homes, which also puts a good deal of sweat equity into the home. They also use Energy Star efficient appliances to keep utility costs low.
McCandless, who is also a former Orem city councilwoman, said that in the end all things lead back to the legislative bodies.
“We need a community conversation with all members of the community,” McCandless said.
Street added that private and public partnerships are also a good way to address the housing issue.
“If there are no incentives, you may not have cooperative landlords,” Street said.
There is one thing that all agree on at the housing summit: The talking needs to transform to doing, and that action must begin now, especially with the area’s population estimated to double by 2040.