Legislators work to prevent further homelessness made worse by COVID-19

SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of state legislators joined community advocates who hope lawmakers can find ways to mitigate the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that have put many families at risk of losing their homes.

Their overriding concern was the impact homelessness can have on children.

“With the economic downturn, we just knew that renters were going to be even more impacted in terms of housing cost burden. And with the need for affordable housing being greater than ever,” said Sarah Brundage, senior director of public policy at Enterprise Community Partners. She noted there are approximately 11 million households who spend more than half of their income on rent alone.

The majority of speakers at Wednesday’s teleconference noted that the COVID-19 outbreak has only worsened the homeless problem that many American families now face. Jennifer Sullivan, director of housing and health integration at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that 4 in 10 children are in families that are behind on their rent or not getting enough food, or both.

“If we are going to have healthy communities, then we have to have healthy children,” the Rev. Joan Bell-Haynes of the Disciples of Christ Church said. “If we are going to seek the welfare of our children, we must seek the welfare of families.”

Sullivan said local and national legislators are essential to solving the homelessness problem for families.

“Policy created these problems, and therefore it can also solve them,” Sullivan said. “There’s an intrinsic link between housing stability and health outcomes.”

She suggested that lawmakers could help low-income families by amending the Medicaid program to allow it to help pay for rent, and not just a family’s medical expenses

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said there is hope that some of the state’s budget surplus can be directed to programs for families at risk of losing their homes. Some of the available money is from the federal aid package approved last year to help people during the pandemic.

“The state of Utah continues to be so proud of being the best managed state,” Escamilla said. “I think we want to be also the state that invests in people the best way. And we’re certainly not there yet and we’re going to work toward that.”

Brundage also referred to the state’s low-income housing tax credit as a possible path to helping Utah families recover or stabilize economically. Brundage said it was necessary to ensure the stability of the tax credit by permanently providing a fixed 4% rate, versus its previous variable rate that lessened its effect.

Another Salt Lake lawmaker commented on how the state’s growth has put pressure on housing costs.

“We’re just not keeping up with our population growth, and that’s a huge problem right on its face,” Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said.

Kitchen referred to a statistic showing that in little over a decade, the number of households have increased 220,000, but the number of housing units has increased to only 185,000, leaving 35,000 families without a home.

“The lack of affordable housing also impacts our opportunities for economic growth,” Kitchen said. “Having affordable housing is a critical component of diverse and stable economic health in the state of Utah,”

The conference’s solutions centered on joined efforts on the part of legislators and community members.

“When faith communities partner with government agencies, we can do great things. We can change lives. We can heal the broken places of our common life, we can build a beloved community together,” said the Rev. Karen Oliveto, bishop of the Mountain Sky Conference of the United Methodist Church.