Provo Faces Low-income Housing Shortage

May 26, 2017

Utah County is a hot real estate market for developers. But affordable housing is dwindling and federally-funded vouchers aren’t keeping up with rising rents.

William Boyd is sitting in a lawn chair on a gravel driveway outside of his apartment in Provo. The sound of hammers and saws reverberate throughout the 42-unit Brigham Apartments. Boyd has lived here for 17 years.

“It’s sad,” he says. “It’s just pathetically sad.”

The new property owner gave everyone a 30-day eviction notice in April. The renovation is effectively pricing out the tenants. Boyd is one of the final holdouts.  

“There was a lot of anger, a lot of hostility, a lot of hate, a lot of disappointment,” Boyd says. “Because everybody in this building, basically everybody is low income, they're Wasatch Mental Health clients, they have social security disabilities. And a lot of them live on welfare and things like that.”

Brent Crane is the executive director of The Food and Care Coalition in Provo.  The organization provides meals, laundry services and case management for local homeless people but there is no overnight shelter in Utah County.

Crane says services in the county are plentiful and effective. But he calls the odds of someone with a federally-funded Section 8 housing voucher finding housing right now in Utah County astronomically low. Provo Housing Authority estimates that out of every 50 housing vouchers distributed, only eight to 10 of those vouchers will be used. Unfortunately, Crane says housing vouchers in Utah County are only worth about $600. Average rent there is just over $1000.

“And we’ve got people that are destitute, living in their cars, living up the canyon, trying to hide somewhere in Provo where they’re not going to be detected because Provo City just passed a camping ordinance,” Crane says.

Crane, says his clients are at the mercy of a market where rents are rising-especially in a city with a large population of college students.

“And quite frankly, let’s be honest,” Crane says. “Our clientele are not going to compete with most others. And so they’re going to be at a greater disadvantage in a market like this.”

In Utah County, where residents like to keep taxes low, Crane says he’s hoping he and other service providers can appeal to landlords for relief.

“See if we can’t just through that, through public awareness, have people go, you know what, yeah I could make $1,200 on this unit, but I’m going to rent one of my units for less and I’m going to maybe target someone in the community that’s less fortunate,” he says.

Provo City Councilwoman Kim Santiago says that would be ideal. But she says, it can’t all happen in downtown Provo. I spoke to her via videochat because she’s out of the country.

“There’s not enough housing, but we have too much in one geographical area in our downtown,” Santiago says. “And that’s a concern for our city. It really needs to be spread throughout the city and spread throughout the community.

Cities typically strive to have more market-rate housing than low-income; about an 80/20 split. But in Provo, it’s nearly the opposite, Santiago says.

One way cities create low-income housing is by requiring or providing incentives for builders to set a side low income housing in new developments. That’s called inclusionary zoning. Park City does it so service-industry employees can afford to live in the high-priced community.

Robert Strain owns Brigham Apartments, the complex that’s being renovated and where William Boyd is being evicted.

He suggests another solution, one that low-income and housing advocates in Utah County seem to agree with: the federal voucher program needs to catch up with the market.

Strain owns a number of properties in Utah County, which he says gave him the flexibility to actually help the tenants that he removed. He offered some of his other units to those who qualified. And he hired his construction crews to move their possessions. But Strain admits, not all property owners have that flexibility. And he doesn’t think they should be required to provide low-income units. 

“You take a responsibility for the tenants you know and you’re effecting. And that’s why I took responsibility,” Strain says.

He doesn’t expect the same from other property owners.

“And I believe in a free-market system, that as an owner of a property, it’s the right of an owner to decide what they’re going to do with the particular property and that also, the rate is determined by the market,” he says.

Outside the Brigham Apartments complex, William Boyd told me he has a place to go, but it’s not quite ready. He was granted an extension, so he could stay at his apartment for a few more days. He acknowledges the owner has the right to order the evictions. The units were bad off he says. The renovations will be a good thing in the end.

“It just hurts when you know for the first week or two that you have nowhere to go and it devastates you,” Boyd says. “It kind of oppresses you and makes you feel depressed about what do I do next? What outlets do I have? And a lot of people don’t have those outlets in those situations.”

The value of Section 8 housing vouchers is set by the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development.

Officials with the Provo Housing Authority say they’re petitioning federal officials to increase that value.