SALT LAKE CITY — Utah faith leaders delivered a letter Monday to Mayor Jackie Biskupski urging Salt Lake City to work with the state and county to dramatically increase the city's affordable housing stock before the downtown homeless shelter shutters in 2019.
About three dozen members of the Coalition of Religious Communities hand-delivered the letter to Biskupski on Monday, praising the mayor for her proposal to spend nearly $22 million next year on affordable housing projects in the city.
But the letter also outlined concerns that once the 1,100-bed Road Home shelter closes on July 1, 2019, there might not be enough beds to serve the city and state's homeless population. The three new homeless resource centers slated to open before the downtown shelter closes are expected to have a combined 700 beds.
"These new shelters will collectively have 400 (fewer) beds than the shelter that is scheduled to close," the letter states. "We fear this will lead to more people sleeping on the street during the winter of 2019 unless state and local government work together to address the housing crisis that is the biggest driver of the recent surge in homelessness."
Fearing the shelter closure might risk leaving people on the streets, faith leaders urged a greater focus on housing.
"What does it say about us as a community if we are turning children away from the homeless shelter in two years?" the Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson, of Granger Community Christian Church, said in a statement.
The religious leaders urged the mayor to work with Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to construct 800 new units of permanent supportive housing across the state while also creating 200 new housing vouchers for homeless families with children that can be used statewide.
They also asked for new funding streams for low-income housing to "reverse the steady loss of housing units that are affordable to families earning less than $25,000 per year."
"Market forces have driven rental prices beyond what many families in the rental market can afford," the letter states. "This leaves too many families on the edge of crisis."
Biskupski has proposed the city use about $21.6 million in Redevelopment Agency Funds to produce 766 affordable housing units next year, with about 400 of them for households bringing in below 40 percent of the area median income.
Biskupski said she appreciates the "support and advocacy" of the faith leaders, adding that she's hopeful the plan proposed to the Salt Lake City Council will be reviewed and voted on "shortly."
"There is absolutely a sense of urgency to bring more housing online before the closure of the Rio Grande shelter," Biskupski said in a statement. "I would encourage all advocates to continue to remind elected leaders at all levels that housing — and funding for housing — is crucial as we move forward."
The mayor's proposal must be passed by the City Council, which has declared affordable housing a top priority in recent years. Last year, the council earmarked nearly $30 million in Redevelopment Agency funds for affordable housing and to build the three new homeless resource centers.
Bill Tibbits, a member of the Coalition of Religious Communities and director of the Crossroads Urban Center, praised the mayor's proposal, calling it "certainly a step in the right direction."
"But is it a big enough step?" he questioned. "I think obviously the need is bigger than that."
Tibbits said he hopes state and county efforts will expand on that number.
McAdams said affordable housing continues to be a priority identified by the county's Collective Impact on Homelessness Steering Committee.
"The county continues to be a strong advocate with the federal and state governments for additional affordable housing revenue," the county mayor said in a statement. "We believe that our new homeless resource shelter model and system reforms will ensure sufficient emergency shelter after the downtown shelter closes in 2019 and that no one will be forced to sleep on the streets.”
Paul Edwards, Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said in a statement the governor and his staff "appreciate the vital role that faith-based organizations play in identifying and addressing the root causes of poverty in our community."
"The governor looks forward to sitting down with faith leaders in early November to discuss solutions to homelessness throughout the state, as well as the role that Operation Rio Grande, Salt Lake County's Collective Impact and the new resource centers can play in averting a crisis in adequate shelter," Edwards said.
"Gov. Herbert and his Cabinet will continue to rely on the best data and analysis to address state-level decisions that have direct impact on the most vulnerable in our state," he said.