The click of a lock that opens the door to your home probably isn’t something that most people think about. We hear it, but we don’t really notice.
But for those whose lives have lacked stability as a result of significant challenges with substance abuse or mental illness, having the keys to your own place is a very big deal.
“It’s a life changing moment,” said Shawn McMillen, executive director of First Step House, which provides community-based and residential treatment and support programs to help those vulnerable individuals achieve greater stability.
In Salt Lake City, opportunities to reach such milestone moments were expanded in August with the opening of the Central City Apartments at 434 S. 500 East. The $20 million, 75-unit complex provides affordable, permanent supportive housing specifically for the seriously mentally ill.
The apartments were built by First Step house and funded with the support of Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and others who share a commitment to using their resources to drive solutions to community challenges, including affordable housing.
“Only through strategic partnerships can this sort of strategic housing initiatives take place,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said during a virtual ribbon cutting for the project. “I’m happy to say that Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have been willing and excited partners.”
McMillen said the dream for the apartment complex —first dubbed the 5th East Apartments because of its location — grew from a conversation with Salt Lake County. Tasked with providing behavioral health needs for all residents, the county was wrestling with how to help the seriously mentally ill.
These individuals are typically chronically homeless and need significant public resources, McMillen said. However, because many frequently rotate between emergency hospital stays or stints in the county jail, they often can’t access homeless services.
The County’s idea: Help these individuals find permeant supportive housing that includes ongoing mental health care resource which they were willing help provide.
The question: Could First Step House, which was already providing transition housing to its clients, build that housing?
“It was a critical community partner coming to us and saying, ‘we have a community need, would you help?’ And that’s what we do,” McMillen said. “We never dreamed we would get into the development business.”
Find a location was simple. First Step House already owned a vacant parking lot that would fit the bill. And as it turns out, raising the building funds wasn’t as hard as could be expected. The state provided a $1.2 million tax credit to seed the project, which was followed by investment from state and national agencies.
Here’s where Salt Lake City played a critical role in the project, McMillen said.
The City stepped in to help cover the shortfall in a budget that First Step House had already trimmed.
In all, Salt Lake City $1,137,668 in funding support, including a $750,000 low-interests gap funding loan from the HUD HOME Investment Partnership Program Development Fund and waived a combined $387,668 in impact and permit fees.
The project was a perfect fit with Salt Lake City’s the city’s goal of increasing its stock of affordable housing across its neighborhood, Tony Milner, the Housing Project & Policy Manager for the division of Housing and Neighborhood Development.
Since 2016, when the Grow SLC plan for housing was adopted, the city has spent more than $64.1 million to support the creation of 2,539 affordable units.
The complex, McMillen said, is a “game-changer” for First Step House and its ability to expand its continuum of services. On site, residents will have access to a team of case managers, clinical mental health services, general healthcare and a peer support staff that they can access round the clock. So far, about half of the 75 units are occupied he said.
McMillen said he’s grateful for Salt Lake City’s support.
“Many municipalities can be very resistant to this kind of stuff. They’re afraid their property values will go down,” he said. “But in Salt Lake City they put people first.”