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As a historic apartment-building boom spreads throughout Salt Lake City and across the region, plenty of winners are emerging.

Investors in multifamily dwellings are, thus far, faring well as rents climb. Developers and construction firms report steady demand for high-density, multistory projects. Businesses near new apartments can expect improved foot traffic and new customers. Cities are gaining residents and growing their tax bases.

If you're a would-be renter, though, the outlook is more mixed.

Prospective tenants with deeper pockets have options. But low- and moderate-income earners — office, restaurant, retail and hotel workers, single parents, college graduates carrying loans — are seeing a shortage of affordable units.

Worsened by wage stagnation, this housing gap has political, civic and even faith leaders increasingly worried that Salt Lake City may cease to become a home to all.

"We're at the 'come to Jesus' time," said Tara Rollins, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Housing Coalition, which pushes for affordable-housing construction statewide.

A predicted doubling in Utah's population by 2040 "is going to be on us before we know it," she said. "Where are these people going to live?"

Rollins and others foresee a three- to five-year window to ensure Salt Lake City's housing mix caters to a wide range of incomes.

"Without a good plan," she said, "we're going to be in trouble."

Record numbers of multifamily dwellings are sprouting across the Wasatch Front, spurred by new zoning, transit access and market forces fostering a renter's lifestyle. Analysts point to dramatic gains in the number of apartment units, with thousands either built or in the pipeline. Most are one or two bedrooms in what the industry calls class A, meaning their shiny, robust new features draw higher prices.

Available city land and underused buildings are selling at a premium these days while construction costs for apartments, town homes, condominiums and existing home renovations keep inching up. Expanded TRAX lines continue to lure residential development. One insider compared the current rush to Utah's suburban home construction heyday before the 2007-2008 housing crash.

"There used to be a few companies doing apartments," said Corey Johnson, vice president of acquisitions for Wasatch Advantage Group. "Now everybody's jumping in."

At the present rate, minimum-wage workers, refugees and residents from disadvantaged backgrounds are in danger of losing a viable foothold in city life within a few short years, warned the Rev. David Nichols, pastor of Mount Tabor Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City.

Nichols penned a Dec. 27 Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece with the Rev. Eun-sang Lee, pastor of downtown's First United Methodist Church, saying the city faces a low-income-housing crisis and that officials have fallen short in addressing it.

All residents benefit from living amid a populace drawn from all walks of life, Nichols said, yet new high-profile apartment projects around the city seem to be aimed more at the well-heeled.

"If the free market is left on its own without any kind of a moral compass, then it's certainly going to be survival of the fittest," he said in an interview. "What kind of a community do we want to be in the midst of the free market? How can we use the free market to benefit not just a few but everyone and especially those who are marginalized and caught in generational poverty?"

Another key question in Salt Lake City's housing disparities is how best to share advantages from mass transit, Nichols and others noted. Encouraged by upzoning, new apartments are clustering around transit corridors, while many existing residential areas are seen as underserved by light rail and bus routes.

"Very few people who are trying to get a start within our community can afford $1,400 a month," the pastor said, referring to high-rise apartments along the 400 South TRAX line and elsewhere.

"But most of those folks need access to public transportation," Nichols said. "It is the people who are most at risk, the working poor, that need access to the University of Utah Hospital, the major Medicare provider in this area."

Mayor Ralph Becker devoted part of his State of the City speech to highlighting affordable housing as a fairness issue, pledging to ensure there are "places to live that cost a reasonable amount of money for people who don't have a lot."

By late January, his administration launched a new community-development initiative to encourage private-sector construction within five years of 5,000 new affordable units in a program called "5000 Doors."

It can't come soon enough for Anne Espejo and her family. The 36-year-old Salt Lake City sales executive and her husband, a bank-systems analyst, have sought a rental for months "and it is ghastly how narrow our choices are."

"Everything is either tiny or scary," Espejo said. "We'd like to stay local but the things we can afford are in, like, Logan or Syracuse or Manti."

The housing equation is closely tied to incomes, which have lagged behind other economic-growth measures in Utah since the Great Recession. Affordable housing, by Salt Lake City's definition, charges rents at or below a recommended third of total income, including folks earning below-average wages. Residents committing more than that to rent are considered "cost-burdened."

A 2013 housing study found that 35 percent of the city's renter households earn under $20,000 a year. But fewer than 13 percent of existing rentals in the city fall within a price range those tenants could afford.

Nursing assistant and single parent Pam McShane is adamant she cannot rent in Salt Lake City without financial help: "It's not affordable."

Ten months ago, she and her two sons scoured listings for weeks before they found a duplex in South Salt Lake. Though poorly maintained and lacking appliances, the rental fell within the boundaries of son Drew's high school, so they took it.

Last week, someone tossed an eviction notice inside the front door days after McShane uncovered a cockroach infestation.

"Rather than spray," she said, "we're getting evicted."

According to U.S. Census numbers, up to 20 percent of the Salt Lake City's households are at risk of homelessness, with many spending more than half their incomes on housing.

On a downward funding trajectory for years, federal programs have variously focused on hous ing for seniors, the disabled and veterans, all while scaling back on housing assistance to the needy. Today, one advocate said, "it is the working poor who are falling through the cracks."

"You're seeing more homeless families and children than ever before," said Terry Feveryear, executive director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City.

The 2013 study determined that at present income levels, the city needs an additional 8,240 affordable places — more than one unit for every 10 of the nearly 80,210 total housing units now in use. That estimated gap does not include residents in adjacent cities who might move to Utah's capital if they could find a home or rental that fit their budget.

How the city intends to bring that many lower-cost units on line remains an open question, but several elements of its strategy have emerged.

City Hall is readying a wide mix of financial and other inducements to help such projects pencil out for private developers. There is talk of new cash for the city's housing trust fund, along with tax incentives, seed loans and a system of impact-fee waivers and expedited building permits for units rented below market rates.

"If we're going to ask developers to include affordable," said Mike Akerlow, the city's housing and neighborhood development director, "then we need to be at the table with them."

Housing needs are likely to provoke fresh conversations with the Utah Transit Authority on extending services within city limits, officials said.

Leaders also mention a larger role for the city's Redevelopment Agency, which already is authorized to pump up to 20 percent of its new tax money into housing. The agency has unique financing tools of its own to lure developers into new projects as well as land and vacant buildings drawn from its holdings of blighted parcels.

"The city and RDA don't have enough money to build all the units," said D.J. Baxter, RDA executive director. "How can we change the mechanics of the community to allow others to provide those units?"

In addition, Becker's staff and City Council members are saying they want to avoid creating large enclaves of publicly subsidized housing in specific areas. They instead envision it scattered across the city, with affordable units more commonly included in new developments.

"The goal," Akerlow said, "is to see a mix of incomes within the same building."

Years of housing policies that only targeted low-income neighborhoods, especially on the west side, have missed a bigger economic picture, Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said.

"We have underfunded the quality of life in those neighborhoods for decades," Mendenhall said. "To continue to concentrate our poverty there doesn't benefit our residents and is not a good use of the funds we have."

Nor, others say, the best use of what time remains before this latest building wave is history.

tsemerad@sltrib.com Twitter: @Tony_Semerad

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