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For Utah seniors on Social Security, finding housing can be a ‘harrowing experience’

Jack Nelson sits on the bed in his one-bedroom apartment in Magna, Utah, April 28, 2022.
Leah Treidler
Jack Nelson sits on the bed in his one-bedroom apartment in Magna, Utah, April 28, 2022.

As Utah’s older population surges, so does the demand for low-income housing. But for seniors who rely on Social Security, even that can be too expensive.

“It's a harrowing experience trying to find housing, and I really almost lost my mind,” said Jack Nelson.

The 68-year-old lives with his wife Susan and their dog in subsidized senior housing in Magna. Together, they rely on about $1,800 per month from Social Security.

Before he lost his job, the couple lived in a four-bedroom house in Escalante. Now, their cramped one-bedroom apartment is crowded with belongings. Nelson’s brightly colored paintings cover the walls. Potted plants line the windowsill, and a row of guitars hangs in the corner.

Prior to moving into the apartment in 2018, the Nelsons were homeless. They spent about six years moving between trailers and friends’ houses, unable to find a place they could afford that would fit their needs. Both have health issues.

“I looked at the people out there on the street and I go, ‘Oh, my God, we're damn near there,’” he said.

Today they pay $550 per month on rent — far below the market price in Salt Lake County — but on top of their other bills, it leaves them with little money for necessities like clothes and food.

“We wear our clothes until they look like gauze,” he said. “But we don't have that constant ‘what the hell are we going to do now?’”

The problems facing the Nelsons are common, said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition. It stems from a severe lack of low-income housing. In Utah, there are 33 units for extremely low income households for every 100 needed. Even when housed, nearly 70% spend more than half of their income on housing and utilities, according to the 2022 GAP report.

Rollins said state lawmakers need to address the issue.

“Everybody says the number one issue is housing,” she said. “But somehow we're not getting that voice to our legislators.”

If nothing changes, Rollins said the problem is going to get worse.

Utah could lose over 40% of its federally subsidized rental units for low-income seniors in the next 25 years according to the 2021 Preserving Affordable Senior Housing report. Because the elder population is projected to grow, the report said more than 3,000 senior households could experience housing instability and homelessness.

There are solutions, like developing more affordable housing units and giving financial assistance to seniors at risk of being evicted — but Rollins said that requires action from the legislature.

Leah is the Morning Edition associate producer at KUER.
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