As news reports carry a barrage of information about the recession (or near-recession, depending on which authority is being quoted), Utah seems to be sitting pretty.
In a fall issue, Fortune listed the Salt Lake area as the No. 1 place in the nation for a new business to locate. State officials have pointed to a decreasing unemployment figure as proof that Utah is doing all right.It would be easy - and comforting - to become complacent.
Over the weekend, I read "Wanted: A Home. Still the American Dream?" The report, prepared by the League of Women Voters of Utah, is a broad look at housing in Utah, with a focus on low-income and transitional housing. The research included sources like the Apartment Association of Utah's "Salt Lake Area Apartment Vacancy," housing assistance plans submitted to the Utah Housing Finance Association by Multi-County Associations of Government, the Utah Office of Planning and Budget, the Division of Community Development, Utah Housing Coalition, the Utah State Homeless Coordinating Committee and others.
While the report is objective and avoids doom-and-gloom projections, it is a sobering reminder that too many Utahns are in trouble.
And many of the rest of us live dangerously close to the edge financially.
Not too many years ago, there was at least the illusion of an insulating difference between the poor and the middle class. Today, there's very little distance. Most middle-class families know well people who are struggling financially, if they are not struggling themselves.
A big part of that struggle is to maintain even a minimum level of shelter.
The 1980 census showed that 20.1 percent of Utah renters lived below the federal poverty standards, according to the report. Only 6.1 percent of homeowners were similarly poor. Twenty-eight percent of all Utah households were renters, but the numbers were much higher in urban areas like Salt Lake and Provo. Numbers in 1990 were expected to be higher.
Poor families spend up to half of their disposable income on housing. And sometimes that housing is both unsafe and unsanitary.
Waiting lists are long for government-subsidized housing (rent is limited to one-third of income) for different populations of disadvantaged people.
On top of that, an estimated 4,300 people in Utah have no housing at all.
Less than 25 percent of these homeless individuals find their way into one of the shelters in the state. Of those who do, a mere handful will be able to work their way back into apartments and homes through transitional housing programs. There just aren't enough programs that provide assistance so someone in that position can find a place to live, temporarily, while he saves up enough money to get into a place of his own.
The programs that do exist are funded by money targeted to help people become self-sufficient. If you look at the millions of dollars used for housing assistance, it seems like a lot. It's not much, when viewed alongside the need for it.
Fortunately for all of us, there are people who work hard to form a safety net to catch people before they ever become homeless.
The Salt Lake Community Action Program's HORP - Housing Outreach Rental Program - is an example. Dedicated staff, directed by Sharon Abegglen, keep a running list of landlords who are willing to work with low-income tenants by providing an initial rent or deposit reduction or a month's free rent. When that assistance is combined with some funding through the program, it's often enough to allow a family to catch up and resume responsibility for the cost of housing.
It's obviously more effective to help people before they become homeless than to try to get them back on their feet afterwards.
Housing issues interlock with so many other social issues. People who spend most of their income on shelter have little left over for other basic needs, like health care, food and clothing.
Money for housing assistance is becoming less available. With increased military buildup in the Persian Gulf and other domestic concerns, the report posits that it will become even less available.
The study reaches a logical conclusion: State and local authorities will have to pick up the slack. Officials will have to know where money is available and be willing to commit funds to draw matching funds.
It is more than good policy. It may be a community's best hope of survival in tough economic times.