Ogden's Oak Den redevelopment seen as a chance to expand affordable housing

Tuesday , June 07, 2016 - 12:00 AM6 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — It’s a struggle for lower-income people to find adequate housing in central Ogden, but that could change in Oak Den.

Oak Den, bordered by 23rd and 26th streets and Madison and Jackson avenues, has been targeted by the city for redevelopment.

“It’s a difficult area,” said Steve Erickson, a consultant and lobbyist with the Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City. “There’s a lot of affordable housing there now, in the sense of less-than-market-rate housing. That’s a good thing for those who need somewhere to live, but there should be an understanding that such a concentration of poverty is not healthy.”

READ MORE: Gentrification not a goal for Ogden redevelopment, expert says

Just how difficult is the area? For starters, 79 percent of the area’s 413 properties are considered dilapidated. A city-commissioned study by Bonneville Research said four out of five properties don’t meet building, safety, health or fire codes and 88 percent are unsanitary or unsafe. Almost a fourth of the acreage is abandoned or vacant.

Story continues below graphic.

Tara Rollins thinks Ogden should focus as much as possible on those stressed dwellings, which she says weigh down the core area.

“Bad housing is good to get rid of,” said Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition. “You want vibrant housing. Bad housing is the most expensive in the community — they have evictions, they don’t belong to good landlord programs, they can charge whatever they want.”

Renters have a harder time in such places requesting unit improvements, let alone seeing improvements made, she said.

RELATED Troubled core: Ogden launches central-city blight study

Gage Froerer, a state representative who frequently has worked on urban renewal legislation, said it will take dollars to break the fleabag cycle. Froerer co-founded Gage Froerer & Associates in 1977 and, among other services his business provides, includes rental property management for several buildings and homes in Northern Utah, according to the Century 21 Froerer website.

“That landlord-owned rentals stock, the owner may be out of state of our of the area,” Froerer said. “That owner has no interest in Ogden. He just wants his monthly rent check.”

Tax breaks or low-interest loans are tools to persuade investors to fix up properties or build new units, he said.

“The bottom line is there has to be an incentive,” Froerer said. “That owner is not going to invest just because they feel good about upgrading the neighborhood.”

A key is to include “really high quality” low-income housing, Erickson said.

“To think low-income is slummy, that’s really not the case,” Erickson said. “It is as good as market-rate housing in many respects in terms of quality. Most affordable housing is such high quality that it greatly improves the neighborhood.”

Further, mixing affordable housing with market-rate units encourages community knitting, Erickson said.

“You can give incentives for developers to include a portion of affordable housing in every complex and apartment building,” he said. “This way you integrate folks in, with lower-income and median-income people.”

And who are those lower- and median-income people?

“These are workforce populations — maids and janitors up to teachers and police officers — where people can qualify for some level of subsidized housing,” he said.

Story continues below graphic.

But sobering numbers confront low-income renters in Weber County, according to new data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. A two-bedroom apartment at fair-market rental rates in the county costs $826 per month on average. A person either needs to make at least $15.88 an hour or work 2.2 full-time jobs at the state’s $7.25 per hour minimum wage, the report says.

Low-income people forced to spend a high percentage of their income on housing get caught in a cycle almost impossible to escape, Rollins said.

“They have too much debt to go out and live,” she said. “They have to leave college, live with mom and dad, or become just as homeless as the next one.”

Any hiccup in life and there’s no room to recover, she said.

Poverty and evictions are connected, she added.

“Once there is an eviction, it is hard to find a place to live.”

Erickson applauded a revision in redevelopment law by the Utah Legislature, which requires dedicating a minimum of 10 percent tax increment money to affordable housing.

“Through these kinds of financial mechanisms, and zoning initiatives as well, you can achieve a level of inclusion that benefits employers, workers and the residents,” he said.

Complicating Ogden’s situation is “an oversupply of felons,” Froerer said. Many prison convicts are returned to society from a regional state halfway house in Ogden, meaning they look for jobs and places to stay here. As a result, good landlord laws cut both ways: Since landlords enjoy lower city license fees by not renting to felons, municipal crime may go down — but those felons have to live somewhere.

A bill sponsored by Froerer in the 2016 legislative session removed the no-felons requirement from the Good Landlord Law, and Ogden will be the base for a new pilot program.

“We’ll have a good database of where these felons are causing problems or not, and maybe tweak the law again and come down for a basic exclusion (of renting to felons) for only certain types of crimes,” Froerer said.

Story continues below graphic.

Transportation costs are another major part of affordable housing decisions, Erickson said.

“It’s important where to locate transit, and you’ve got some good transit there,” he said. People who live close to work and can use transit have a better chance of affording their rent because their transportation costs are lower.

In the end, said Erickson, the Oak Den project “will take funding and the political will to package it properly to educate the public.”

Sign up for e-mail news updates.