Affordable housing

Kyle Roche, 27. Recent graduate of the University of Utah law school. Just sworn into the Utah State Bar. Full-time job, Utah Attorney General’s Office. Future in the Beehive State uncertain.

Problem: Can’t buy a house.

Kimber Connelly, 31. Married. Two daughters; ages 5 and 8. Full-time student. Full-time waitress. Tired of living with her parents.

Problem: Can’t afford an apartment.

Affordable housing — what a many-headed monster.

It is a phrase used in its simplest form to describe a roof over one’s head that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. By definition, housing is considered "affordable" if it costs no more than 30 percent of a family’s income.

But in Utah, where even Gov. Mike Leavitt says "starter castles" and "trophy homes" have become the rule rather than exception, affordable housing has adopted the image of an open sore on communities and neighborhoods. And an analysis of the issue illustrates an ugly prejudice that is defining whether Utah kids can live in the communities where they grow up.

Some examples:

In Centerville, an overflow crowd showed up last month to protest a plan for 260 apartments developer Peter Cooke wanted to build on acres known as the Porter Lane Nursery property. No way, said a parade of citizens who discouraged the project for myriad reasons, including increased traffic, lower property values in surrounding neighborhoods and overcrowded schools.

The city denied the request.

In Bluffdale, Mayor Nolle Nelson calls high density "our big issue." Developers are trying to make a profit, he said, by creating a false demand for this kind of housing.

"We really haven’t had that need yet," he said. "It’s not conducive to what we’re doing. People here are very much against the high density."

In Draper, a community that has rebuked most efforts to build apartments, Councilman Paul McCarty talks about the "mobility rates" associated with high-density living. He talks about the added police services apartments will require. "There’s some type of coordination with the more at-risk populations here," he says.

Yet residents in these communities are crying out for help.

Affordable housing is the most pressing problem facing Davis County, 63 percent of the county’s residents said in a comprehensive needs assessment study completed recently. Only school overcrowding, with 64 percent, garnered more votes as the top problem.

One-third of all renters cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Davis County Housing Authority has 2,149 families on its waiting list for subsidized housing, according to the assessment.

And comments like McCarty’s, with implications that apartments and affordable housing draw an undesirable population, make Connelly’s blood boil.

She’s not a criminal, she says. She’s not going to up and leave; she’s not going to bilk a landlord out of the rent. "What I want is a place for my kids bigger than where we are living now, in the family room in my parents’ basement. You wanna talk about ‘mobility’? Let’s talk about how stable my girls feel right now."

These examples make Leavitt cringe. In his 1999 State of the State address, the governor again said there is "dramatic need" for cities and towns to provide all kinds of housing.

"A good economy is a hollow victory if our children cannot afford to live in the town they grew up in."

Annie and Todd Storrs. Married January 1999. Annie, 22, is a part-time student who works full time at Salt Lake Credit Union. Todd, 25, carries a full college courseload and just got hired full time at Fidelity Investments. They want a small house close to where they both grew up in the Salt Lake Valley.

Problem: The Storrs estimate it will take five years to save the down payment to buy a house.

Utah’s affordable housing crisis is a home-grown problem.

In 1998, Utah was the sixth-fastest growing state in the country behind Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Texas. Local births outpace local deaths, and this accounts for nearly all of the growth, not in-migration from other places.

Utahns have lots of kids, and these kids want to stay in the Beehive State and rear their own families. It is often these young people who can’t afford to buy or rent.

"It is truly affecting everyone," said Bill Erickson, who runs the Utah Housing Finance Agency Corp., a state-created agency that makes affordable housing available to some Utahns.

"People are realizing it is their children who can’t afford housing. It’s their parents. It’s the secretary in the mayor’s office," he said. "They are the schoolteachers, the firemen — they aren’t the folks people thought they were: the people from California with needles hanging out of their arms."

Leavitt saw this problem coming. For three years, he has talked about putting an end to "starter castles" and "trophy homes" if communities will not acknowledge the problem themselves.

In January 1998, Leavitt designated part of his annual State of the State speech to the topic. "Do we wall off the Wasatch Front and tell our children this is not the place? No."

More recently, Leavitt chastised local governments who use their planning and zoning authority to "exclude everything but big lots, double garages and expensive brick homes."

"Nice, if your earnings allow it. But what if they don’t?"

Still, little is being done to change the complexion of Utah’s housing market.

State lawmakers have avoided the issue. They did pass a law requiring cities to write strategies for providing affordable housing but put no teeth in the legislation. There are neither penalties for noncompliance nor incentives for cities that do the work. State officials say only about half have completed the reports.

Affordable housing advocates thought the law would at least paint a clear picture of the affordable housing problem, said Steve Erickson, director of the Utah Housing Technical Assistance Program. "But that hasn’t happened."

Some communities do provide more choices for buyers and renters.

In West Jordan, population 65,000, 15 percent of existing housing is designated "affordable." The city’s plan challenges builders to provide 29 percent of housing for people with average or lower-than-average incomes.

Nearly 20 percent of Layton’s housing stock is "affordable."

Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood blends a mix of single-family homes, condominiums, duplexes and multi-family units, and the depth of the market means there are some affordable apartments included in this northeast Salt Lake community.

Most "smart growth" planning efforts make affordable housing a top priority and encourage the kind of variety found in the Avenues.

"Housing affordability has to be part of what we’re talking about when we talk about this kind of mix," said Dan Lofgren, a developer and member of the state’s new Quality Growth Commission. "It’s easy to plan a great community with quarter-million-dollar homes."

Kristy and Shawn Ashby. Eight-month-old daughter. Shawn earns $30,000 a year as a special events coordinator for West Valley City. Kristy is a full-time mom.

Problem: Couldn’t afford a house.

Problem solved: With assistance from Utah Housing Finance Agency, the couple got a low-interest loan and moved into a $100,000, three-bedroom home in Magna this fall.

Some programs do provide assistance.

The Utah Housing Finance Agency operates as a large, independent public bank, lending money to about 2,000 families each year to help buy first homes. The agency targets people who earn 68 percent of the median income. Most earn about $31,000 a year and are placed in homes worth an average $106,000.

"There are scenarios where the husband works at Wal-Mart and the wife is a librarian," said Bill Erickson, who runs the program. "You don’t have to look very far to see the people who earn $31,000."

But most agree programs like this are only part of the solution. Communities wield the greatest power in planning and zoning decisions.

And community philosophy can evolve, says Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan. Several years ago, Sandy had the same feeling about high-density housing now expressed by communities like Draper and Bluffdale.

"Those communities will come to the realization too in the next few years," he said. "They’ll find there is a market for higher density housing from empty nesters, young families looking for something more affordable. And they are people who are great additions to our communities."

Deseret News staff writer Maria Titze contributed to this story.

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