Affordable housing a growing concern across the spectrum, officials tell state lawmakers

Published: Wednesday, June 18 2014 7:20 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 18 2014 7:20 p.m. MDT

Residents of Gearld Wright Villa relax in the main lobby on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in West Valley City.

Hugh Carey, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Wilma Thomas hadn't planned to live in an apartment building for low-income seniors.

After retiring from American Stores, Thomas purchased a mobile home where she planned to live out her senior years. But her plans changed when she determined she could not afford lot fees on a fixed income.

That's when she found Gearld L. Wright Villa, a 79-unit building owned and operated by the nonprofit Community Housing Services Inc.

"I love it. I love the security. I love the apartment because it's one of the nicest places I've lived in. It's nice and roomy," she said.

Best of all, subsidized rent makes it affordable for seniors who meet income guidelines and other requirements.

"If I didn't have this, I don't know how I'd exist," she said.

Thomas is among a growing number of Utahns who need affordable housing. Gordon Walker, director of the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development, said the state needs around 44,000 units of affordable housing to help meet the needs of people including working adults, young families, people with disabilities, seniors, homeless people and refugees.

Addressing the Utah Legislature's Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee on Wednesday, Walker said the state's efforts to partner in developing additional units of affordable housing have been stymied on a number of fronts, including local planning and zoning practices that discourage development of affordable housing, and deep cuts to some federal subsidies and programs.

"The federal government is not a stable partner in the affordable housing arena," Walker said.

The state has also provided limited support to the effort. While the state housing division has become adept at leveraging state funding with private, nonprofit and government partners, more state funding would obviously boost its efforts.

"For $2.2 million (in state funding), we're not able to solve all the problems," he said.

A variety of partners develop about 800 units of affordable housing a year, Walker said. A new state initiative that will help industrial lenders more readily participate in projects as part of their federal Community Investment Act responsibilities has tremendous potential, he said.

"We need help all along the spectrum. Forty percent of our population has a need for affordable housing," Walker said.

Mashell Saldana, site manager at Gearld Wright Villa, said she receives telephone calls on a daily basis from seniors or their loved ones seeking affordable housing.

"It's heartbreaking to have to tell them 'no,'" Saldana said.

Many residents at Gearld Wright Villa, named for a former longtime mayor of West Valley City, have lived in the building since it opened 10 years ago.

They say they like it because it allows them to live independently and because the building is well maintained.

"We take a lot of pride in the housing we own. We keep it nicely maintained. There's always a wait list," Saldana said.

While the need for affordable housing well exceeds the supply, Robert Grow, president and CEO of Envision Utah, said strong educational systems, jobs that pay living wages and other anti-poverty measures play a role in reducing the numbers of people who can't afford housing.

"We’ll never have enough money. We'll never have enough subsidy," Grow said.

Other strategies must be employed to address the issue, he said.

For those fortunate to have an affordable roof over their heads, it comes down to peace of mind, said June Vega, 82, another resident of Gearld Wright Villa.

"You have other people to talk to. I prefer these kind of apartments. Here you can come down (from one's apartment to the common area) and talk to people," she said. "Once a month we have a potluck. We have a nice room for that, too."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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