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Ahead Of Possible Cuts, Officials Tout Success Of Housing Grant Programs

Photo of a man cutting a ribbon in front of his house.
Jon Reed
Mario Melendez and his wife Emma moved into a house they own for the first time Thursday. Mayor Jackie Biskupski and local officials defended housing grants that funded renovations and helped the family make a downpayment in the face of possible cuts.

For decades, Mario and Emma Melendez have lived and worked in Salt Lake City. Originally from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City, they came to Salt Lake by way of Phoenix, and have rented all their lives. But on Thursday, they moved into a house that, for the first time, they can call their own.

“For us, for our family, it’s very important,” Mario Melendez said in Spanish. “We finally have space for the whole family to be together.”

The house had been a neighborhood eyesore, abandoned and rotting away and rumored to have housed a meth lab. But with $75,000 in city grant funding and $13,100 in downpayment assistance, the house in the west side’s Westpointe neighborhood was rehabilitated, returned to the city’s affordable housing stock and purchased by the family.

Before officially moving in Thursday, the Melendez family stood with Mayor Jackie Biskupski and local housing officials in front of the newly rebuilt home to tout the success of the grant programs that made the project possible. Officials also announced that the city is now accepting applications for four grants totalling nearly $5 million, intended to bring more affordable housing to the market and provide assistance to low-income households.

The Melendez’s house is one of 10 that the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Utah has bought and rehabilitated since July, said Mike Akerlow, the nonprofit’s chief executive. 

While the agency has plans to do the same for roughly 40 more houses before the end of the fiscal year, the program and others like it could face major setbacks if the federal funding it depends on is reduced, or cut altogether. 

Earlier this year, the Trump Administration proposed significant and controversial cuts to housing and development programs nationwide, which total more than $7 billion. The nearly $5 million in federal aid that Salt Lake City officials expect to receive — if funding comes through — would be about the same as last year’s amount. 

“It’s always been a battle with the federal government to make sure we have the funds that are needed to do these kinds of projects,” Akerlow said.

Housing projects like the Melendez’s have ripple effects beyond helping individual families, Biskupski said, adding she worries that the support could stop if the federal government reduces or cuts funding altogether. 

“Those dollars are always up on the chopping block in Washington, D.C.,” she said. But “at the end of the day, you can see taking a meth house and turning it into something so beautiful like this makes a big difference for this entire street and neighborhood.”

Lani Eggertsen-Goff, director for Housing and Neighborhood Development, estimated there are hundreds of houses in the Salt Lake area that could use significant rehabilitation. In a typical year, her agency supports between 200 and 300 households with funding that ranges from a few hundred dollars for small repairs to tens of thousands of dollars for complete renovations. 

“We try not to think about the possibility of those funds going away,” she said, adding the results could be “devastating” for the families and city agencies that depend on the aid.

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