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.
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.
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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.+