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Qiling Wang, Deseret News
FILE - A new home under construction in Lehi is pictured on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Andrea Brandley, who currently works as an elementary theater teacher, said the idea of searching for affordable housing is "very daunting."

Brandley said she and her husband spent a year living with family, trying to save money for a down payment and working with a real estate agent to run the numbers on what kind of mortgage they would be able to qualify for.

But ultimately, Brandley said they settled on renting because they just couldn't find anything they could afford to buy in the area where they wanted to live.

So Friday, speaking at a news conference at the state Capitol, Brandley said she was "thrilled" to hear a Utah homebuilder was doing something to help teachers like her afford to achieve the American dream.

"More than just providing these affordable housing opportunities, I'm grateful for the value that they place on public service employees," Brandley said. "It makes us feel a little bit more valued and important, and I'm grateful for that."

As top state officials, business leaders and housing experts gathered on Capitol Hill to rally the troops for more affordable housing solutions, Utah's largest homebuilder unveiled a new program Friday to help a special group of Utahns afford home ownership.

It's not just for schoolteachers. It's also for police officers, firefighters, veterans, construction workers, nurses, as well as first-time homebuyers earning less than $70,000 a year.

Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, announced Friday that his company is launching the Utah Workforce Housing Priority initiative, a program to reserve homes at more affordable price points and give preference to Utahns who are struggling to buy homes in today's hot real estate market.

Those public service employees are Utah's workforce "that deserves it most," Ivory said.

“In a climate of increasing housing prices and affordability challenges, we have a duty to those serving our communities and to assist them in becoming homeowners,” he said. “We are committed to helping address Utah’s housing affordability challenges by supporting our educators, public safety professionals, veterans, members of our military, and the construction tradespeople that build our homes.”

Ivory said his company has reserved more than 150 lots in areas across the Wasatch Front that will become available to purchase this year at prices between $200,000 and $350,000. More information about the program can be found at ivoryhomes.com.

Those areas so far include Holbrook Farms in Lehi, Broadview Shores in Provo, Overland in Eagle Mountain, Sagewood in Stansbury Park, Monterey Estates in Syracuse, and Haven Parkway in West Haven.

"These heroes teach our kids, police our streets, protect our country, build our homes," Ivory said. "Or they are our kids or grandkids, simply looking for a foot in the door of home ownership. They deserve our priority."

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
FILE - New homes under construction in Lehi are pictured on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

Ivory pledged his company is "going to do all we can to help these people qualify" for homeownership through the new program — whether it's helping clean up their credit or work with them to help save up for a down payment.

"Ivory Homes is committed to be a leader in addressing this critical issue of housing affordability," Ivory said. "This is an emerging issue in our state, and left unaddressed it poses a real threat to our state’s economic vitality."

Gov. Gary Herbert and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, joined Friday's announcement, applauding Ivory for efforts to create housing solutions during a time when home prices continue to skyrocket, fueled by historically low housing vacancy rates.

"It's nice to see the private sector once again stepping up," Herbert said. "I'm a free market guy, and I think there are niches in the market for affordable housing."

Ivory Homes' new program announcement came the same day local business leaders and housing policy experts gathered at the Capitol to discuss solutions to Utah's ever-growing housing crisis.

The Salt Lake Chamber's Housing Gap Coalition hosted a panel of national experts, including Kent Colton, former executive director of the National Home Builders Association; Chris Hebert, managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies; Laurie Goodman, vice president at the Urban Institute and co-director of its Housing Finance Policy Center; and Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Jim Wood, a senior fellow at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, gave an update on the state's current housing numbers, and there wasn't any good news.

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"The gap persists," he said, noting that while Utah didn't lose ground in 2018, it "didn't make any headway" either. Still, Utah has about a 45,000 statewide shortage of housing.

The panel's main message: Utah's housing shortage will continue to persist if all stakeholders don't come together to provide a variety of solutions — including both the private sector and the public sector.

Gochnour, asked to give advice to those hoping to close the housing gap, answered with two words.

"Act now," she said.