SALT LAKE CITY — Following several years of heavy lifts to fund homelessness initiatives, the topic didn't get as much attention from the 2019 Utah Legislature as it has in previous years, though there were new efforts to address a closely related issue: affordable housing.
But despite a big push from housing and homeless advocates — as well as support from developers and the Salt Lake Chamber — the Utah Legislature only partly acted on a high-priority affordable housing bill, passing it without its $24 million ask.
The move left housing and homeless advocates deflated, while legislative leaders blamed it on budget constraints and complications from tax reform planned for a summer special session.
"We're going to be checking the couch cushions later," Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said on the House floor, right before lawmakers voted to strip SB34's $24 million fiscal note, even though he acknowledged the bill was the product of multi-stakeholder efforts to address Utah's affordable housing shortage.
The money would have pumped $20 million on-time and an additional $4 million ongoing into the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which is used for loans and grants to develop moderate-income housing.
But even without the $24 million, SB34 still enacts new policies on cities to encourage local officials to plan and zone for affordable housing by leveraging their eligibility to apply for about $700 million in state transportation funds.
That's still a "critical" win for affordable housing this year, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said after the House floor vote late Thursday night.
"We took a really big step on policy," he said. "But as far as the financial commitment, I think we fell down."
Anderegg added: "Cities are only one side of that coin. Cities don't actually develop or build affordable housing, so the other side of the coin is still being left unfulfilled at this point."
Anderegg explained the stripped fiscal note to homelessness advocate Pamela Atkinson outside the Senate chamber, visibly disappointed in the move. He said his bill was a "casualty of the budget process that went down this year."
As chairman of the state's newly created Commission on Housing Affordability, Anderegg said he's "received assurances" that there will be funding for the bill "when we come back in the special session" this summer. He said he didn't know how much yet, but "I'm going to shoot for everything I can get."
But whether the issue even gets addressed in coming months is up in the air. Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said there's "certainly a possibility" but he also said, "I don't think we would look at it in the special session."
"I think it's probably going to hang there until next year, then we'll take another look at it," Stevenson said.
House Speaker Brad Wilson said "there's always budget constraints, but that doesn't mean we won't (consider it) down the road." He said with passing SB34, the state still took a big step on affordable housing policies.
June Hiatt, director of policy and advocacy for the Utah Housing Coalition, said while she was happy to see SB34 pass, she was disappointed it was without funding. Pointing to the state's more than 40,000-unit housing shortage — that only grows as years go by — she wondered when state leaders will start prioritizing the issue.
"Quite frankly, if the state's going to take this seriously, they need to put their money where their mouth is," she said. "To once again be told, 'We don't have the money,' it's harder to hear every year."
Another affordable housing bill, HB386, which would have allocated $20 million for affordable housing preservation, was watered down to $3 million but still failed in a Senate committee.
On homelessness, however, a notable bill cleared the Legislature. HB342 aims to address an audit last year that found poor data was making it impossible to track what homeless programs worked or didn't work.
That bill, if signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, will require the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee — the body that distributes state money to homeless providers — to better evaluate and track progress toward specific goals.
Preston Cochrane, executive director of Shelter the Homeless, the owner of the three new homeless resource centers currently under construction, said the bill will help "isolate what the real gaps" are in the state's homeless system, which auditors estimated Utah spent more than $100 million on in 2017.
"It really requires the state to have a more data-driven approach," he said.
However, another bill — one that would have created drug-free zones around homeless shelters and increased penalties on drug dealing — also didn't get funded, so it died in the Senate. But its sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said he plans to bring it back next year.3 comments on this story
"Our fellow citizens that are experiencing an episode of homelessness should not have to put up with drug dealers while living in temporary shelter," Eliason said.
Atkinson expressed disappointment that Eliason's bill didn't pass, but remained optimistic it would come back next year "for the sake of the neighborhoods" around the future homeless centers, promised they won't be like the downtown homeless shelter before Operation Rio Grande.
"They need to have that reassurance," Atkinson said.