SALT LAKE CITY — Before Larry Darden moved out in early 2016, he "was afraid to go to sleep at night" in his downtown Salt Lake apartment.
Roaches infested the place. There were attempted break-ins. Darden never felt comfortable or secure.
"It was very, very unsafe at my last address," Darden says.
Despite the deplorable conditions, Darden was hundreds of dollars per month short of being able to consistently afford his apartment.
But after his applications for a place elsewhere were met with repeated rejections due to his prior criminal record, Darden was given a lifeline. He was able to get in at the Lowell Apartments, a low-income affordable housing complex at 233 E. 700 South managed by the Utah Nonprofit Housing Corp.
"Once I moved from there into here, it was like moving into paradise," Darden told the Deseret News while proudly giving a tour of his one-bedroom apartment.
Larry Darden looks on while in his home at the Lowell Apartments in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Darden, who has been in his current apartment for a year and a half, had issues previously with finding affordable housing and suffered from unsafe living conditions. | Alex Goodlett, Deseret News
But even the Lowell Apartments took nearly a year to get Darden in — largely because of the overwhelming demand in Salt Lake City for affordable housing for low-income residents. Darden knows how fortunate he is.
"Here, it's quiet, it's respectful. There's no problems, it's a great place to lay your head in," Darden said. "It's very, very hard to find a place like this."
The standard rent at the Lowell Apartments is a below-market rate of $575 per month — a few hundred dollars less than he was paying — and there is flexibility on top of that. Darden works as a residential assistant there to earn the remaining amount he cannot pay.
Many other Utahns who could use affordable housing are not as lucky. Officials estimate the state has a shortage of 43,000 affordable units. For those who simply can't get in, the mainstream housing market has their way with them.
And that market has not been kind to low-income Utahns.
According to new data published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a person or household earning minimum wage must work 76 hours per week in order to reasonably afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate in Utah.
By the same metric, affording a two-bedroom apartment in Utah would require working 94 hours per week at minimum wage, the organization reported.
At just 40 hours per week, the lowest wage that could afford a two-bedroom apartment in Utah is $17.02 per hour on average, states the report, published June 8 and titled "Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing."
That places Utah near the middle of the road in the United States, with the 25th lowest such required wage, the National Low Income Housing Coalition said. Minimum wage in Utah is $7.25.
The findings indicate that minimum-wage workers must choose between working exorbitant hours or spending a very high and exceptionally risky portion of their income on housing, the report authors believe.
"A severely (rent) cost-burdened household is often one unexpected bill away from losing their home," housing coalition spokeswoman Lisa Marlow said in an email, citing a medical bill or a car repair as examples. "One emergency puts them behind in paying for their housing. Families in this situation are likely to experience greater stress (and) poorer health."
There are 276,708 renter households in Utah, accounting for about 31 percent of all residences in the state. According to the report, at 40 hours of work each week, the household earning the average wage of a Utah renter — $13.26 per hour — could reasonably afford $689 per month in rent. The average fair market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in Utah is $885 per month; it's $716 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.
The housing coalition based its findings on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's calculation of fair market rent rates in every American county and metropolitan area. The fair market rate is considered "what a family moving today could expect to pay for a modest apartment or rental home in the area," Marlow said.
Following the same methodology of the federal government, the organization defines housing as affordable when household members use less than 30 percent of their income to pay for it. Households above that threshold are considered significantly cost-burdened by housing, while those who pay for it with more than 50 percent of their income are considered severely cost-burdened.
A factor in homelessness
Unaffordable housing strongly increases the chances of a minimum-wage worker being evicted and potentially becoming homeless, according to Marlow.
"Homelessness is the direct result of the affordable rental housing shortage," she said. "We have learned from a growing collection of studies that stable, affordable housing has positive outcomes regarding health, education and employment."
Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, which runs a food pantry and thrift store serving needy populations, said a clear line can be drawn between a lack of affordable housing and homelessness.
"There's simply no place to put people ... where someone can move out of the shelter and find a place to live," Bailey said.
One catastrophic event could put a low-wage family on the street, Bailey said.
"If you have to pay 80 percent of everything you bring in for rent and utilities, you have almost no margin for error at all," Bailey said. "You're going to have a hard time feeding your family. ... You're living so close to the margin, you're going to need everything to go just right every month. And as we all know, that's not the way life is."
Some low-wage workers are able to stabilize their housing by working excessive hours, ensuring they're paying a reasonable percentage of their pay toward their apartment, Bailey said, but that inevitably leads to severe drawbacks in other areas of life.
"That's a lot of hours spent away from the home, not being with your kids, not maintaining your relationships — just because you're trying to keep your head above water," he said. "And that makes your daily life much more difficult."
Wages not keeping up
Grant Whitaker, president and CEO of the Utah Housing Corp., an independent state agency, said the dearth of affordable housing can largely be attributed to stagnant wages and increasing cost of living.
"There are lots of people in Utah and across the country who simply do not make very much money, whether it's (via) lower paying jobs, or whether it's social security pensions and savings that seniors have, or whether it's people who are on some sort of assistance," Whitaker said. "Incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living, particularly the cost of housing, and that's both in ownership and rental housing."
Tara Rollins, director of the Utah Housing Coalition, said there is no solution to housing affordability problems that can last while minimum wage remains the same.
"We need to raise wages. That is the bottom line if the government does not want to be in housing," Rollins said.
Service workers with low pay have a very difficult time living where they work, Rollins said.
"Those are the ones who are the backbones of tourism. They're the dishwashers, they're our chambermaids," Rollins said. "They're our service providers. But yet we don't have the infrastructure to have people living where they're working."
Rollins takes issue with what she calls Utahns' generally dismissive attitude toward people who can use housing assistance.
"I'm so sick and tired of hearing people say, ‘Well pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ — we have so many people working so hard," she said. "And our system takes advantage of them because they have to work two or three jobs, because they can't work a full-time job at minimum wage, because then you'd have to get benefits."
"These people are working really hard and then they get a hiccup and they're made to feel like failures. ... They are working extremely hard, it's just they're not making a (decent) wage," Rollins said.
James Wood, a senior fellow of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah who has studied Utah's housing, real estate and construction industries for 40 years, said research shows about 4 in 5 of Utah's poorest renters spend at least 30 percent of their money on rent. About two-thirds of them spend more than 50 percent of their money on it, meeting the federal definition of severely cost-burdened, he said.
Overall, roughly 57,000 of all rental households in Utah dedicate at least 50 percent of their income toward rent payments, Wood said.
"That's a heck of a burden for almost 60,000 households," he said.
While poor Utahns are disproportionately affected, obstacles to finding affordable pricing on a home or apartment is not limited to them, said state Housing and Community Development Division Director Jonathan Hardy.
"We've got people making close to a median income who have a hard time getting affording housing," Hardy said. "It's certainly a challenge here in our state."
Supply and demand
Hardy and Whitaker were one of many who earlier this year voiced support for HB36, which passed as a measure designed to provide real estate developers and landlords an incentive to drop rates for tenants by using special loans and enhanced tax credits.
But that bill's scope is quite small, ideally resulting in 100 additional affordable units, Whitaker said.
"No matter how you scratch the surface on affordable housing for renters, if incomes don't keep pace with the cost of housing, it's a major uphill battle and it always will be," Whitaker said.
Whitaker said Utah's 43,000-unit shortfall in affordable housing would be even higher if it were not for 25,000 affordable units arranged for through various federal efforts, including the low-income housing tax credit program, since 1977.
That program increases affordable housing accessibility through some of the same developer incentives that were used in HB36, but on a larger scale.
There is also a supply-and-demand problem with housing because prospective buyers have increased faster than construction can keep up since the Great Recession ended, according to Whitaker.
"Part of the growth through the recession was maintained in mom and dad's basement, and now with more of the younger (generation) having more employment, they're (wanting) houses," he said. "Nobody built for quite a while, but now ... there is a demand for it."
The disparity between rapid job growth and tempered housing development is particularly pronounced in some pockets of the state, like Summit County, Wood said. That makes it difficult for low-wage workers in Summit County, home to the resort town Park City, to actually live there and pushes them into longer commutes, he said.
"It's had really rapid employment growth ... but if you look at the housing level, it hasn't been much," Wood said.
Summit County was calculated to have the highest hourly wage — $19.87 — necessary to afford a two-bedroom apartment at a fair market rate while working just 40 hours per week. It was followed by Salt Lake County, Rich County and a few others tied for fourth highest. Beaver, Carbon, Emery, Garfield, Iron, Millard San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties all tied for the lowest at $12.50.
Marion Willey, executive director of the Utah Nonprofit Housing Corp., added that the incorporation of new affordable housing is meaningless if existing inventory is being lost at the same time.
"If we don't preserve what we have, it's lost," Willey said.
Willey added that affordable housing properties are sometimes foreclosed because of a lack of financial commitment from the landlord or developer that owns them. Other times, poorly maintained affordable housing properties are sold to developers who must significantly renovate them and pay for those renovations by raising rent by a few hundred dollars per month, he said.
Willey estimated that each year, hundreds of affordable housing units in Salt Lake City alone are bought and renovated and their rent raised, inevitably pricing out some of the residents there.
"Where are people going to live that are making 10, 15 bucks an hour?" he said.
Willey said it's critical for landlords and developers to adequately maintain affordable housing units on a regular basis so that there is no eventual need for cost-intensive renovation. He also supports local and state government financial support of nonprofits who commit not to raise rates past affordable levels on properties they own.
Maintaining the affordable status quo for such properties is crucial, Willey said, because it's dramatically easier to lose affordable housing inventory than to gain it back again, which is "not good for the resident or for the city."
"If we lose these units then they're gone.