SALT LAKE CITY — Though the results weren't perfect, state and local leaders agreed homelessness issues emerged a politically empowered and well-funded priority in the 2017 Utah Legislature.
The passage of HB441 — the bill critical to the plan to revamp the state's troubled homeless services model — left leaders of the state's largest city and county feeling hopeful that they're a step closer to alleviating the plights of downtown Salt Lake's Rio Grande area.
The bill would finalize the second half of the state's $20 million contributions for the construction of new homeless resource centers, paving the way for two new shelters to be built in Salt Lake City and a third shelter in a yet-to-be-decided city in Salt Lake County.
The bill also sets in stone a date to close down the plighted downtown Road Home shelter — on or before June 30, 2019.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who prioritized addressing homelessness in his State of the State address this year, said he'll likely sign the bill. The governor also lauded lawmakers for acknowledging homelessness is "not just a Salt Lake City issue, but a statewide problem."
"We've still got a long way to go. There's still issues out there that need to be addressed," Herbert said Thursday, the final day of the 45-day session. "But I think it's a really good effort by the state, and it's going to produce very good outcomes for our communities."
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said "it was inspiring to see the Legislature step forward in a bold and bipartisan way" to work toward homeless solutions.
"Now the work of implementation begins," McAdams said. "It's not going to be easy, but having the financial support of the Legislature really puts us on strong footing as we implement the expectations we've set for ourselves. This state support is critical, and we couldn't do it without."
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said she was "very excited" about the bill passing, adding that it will "set up a very good framework" for the city to fund its new homeless resource centers.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said lawmakers "successfully defined homelessness as a state issue," with "significant" funding appropriates made.
"I think it highlights the fact we have embraced our homelessness crisis as a state issue," Hughes said.
It wasn't without some bumps in the road, though. State leaders had to step "a little out of our comfort zone," the speaker said, and work with city and county leaders to make it happen.
In the midst of the legislative session, Salt Lake City leaders faced public outrage over the previous plan to build four 150-bed homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City, particularly over a site in Sugar House.
More than halfway through the session, Hughes joined city and county leaders to announce a new plan to build two 200-bed shelters in Salt Lake City, and a third elsewhere in Salt Lake County.
"There was a lot of one step forward, two steps back; three steps forward, one step back," Hughes said. "It was tough to get this thing through, but we did it because it was important."
Hughes said the difficult work was in the details, trying to figure out where the new shelters should go.
"That issue inherently becomes so much harder," he said. "That's where leadership has to be born; that's where people have to just do right by our citizens and those who are most vulnerable. I'm very happy with how we worked together to get that accomplished."
But the plan has left some feeling wary, as Salt Lake County and state officials prepare to select that third site — knowing HB441 gives cities no power to refuse the shelter.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, expressed worries about the bill's impact on cities, though he eventually agreed to vote for the legislation after he was assured that proposed cities will have representation on the board that will select the site.
But Thursday, Thatcher was still concerned that a city will find itself forced into an undesirable situation.
"You watch: This shelter is going to get rammed into a city, and that city is going to be pretty unhappy about it," he said.
Yet state and county leaders are confident the process will be inclusive, transparent and collaborative, even though HB441 gives county officials less than a month to have a site recommended to the state's Homeless Coordinating committee.
"I think it will be an inclusive process," Herbert said.
"It's always tough," the governor added. "No matter what we do, somebody's going to be unhappy. That's just the nature of what we're trying to do here. But I think we can mitigate that problem and make sure everybody has an opportunity to weigh in."
While city and county leaders agree the most crucial homelessness solutions bill was passed, they also acknowledge it will only take them so far.
The cost for each shelter — including construction and land purchases — is expected to be between $12 million and $15 million, McAdams said, and another $2 million per year for operation.
City and county officials have "some hard work ahead of us" to raise public donations, he said, hoping more generous donors like Pat King — who has contributed $4 million — will step forward.
"We're really going to be dependent on the generosity of the people of our community to make this happen," McAdams said.
Biskupski said Salt Lake City will also "clearly have to do our part to raise matching funds."
"That is all in the works," she said.
There are also still lingering issues that will need to be addressed, Biskupski and McAdams said.
HB36, sponsored by Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, was another significant bill in the state's efforts to reduce Utah's homeless population.
The bill aims to expand affordable housing stock by increasing state income tax credits and creating a fund to provide loans to help build more affordable housing.
"This bill complements the efforts being done statewide, especially by cities and counties, to alleviate the homeless situation and is an important part of solving that problem," Edwards said.
Lawmakers approved about $1.4 million in ongoing money from the state's education fund to increase annual tax credits the Utah Housing Corp. can allocate for low-income housing.
The bill also transfers about $2 million in one-time money from the general fund to be used for affordable housing projects for families earning 30 percent or less than the area median income.