Salt Lake City residents unload on housing issues as City Council looks at new micro-apartment rules

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homeless people gather outside the City County building for a demonstration before the city council meeting, Tuesday, April 23, 2019.

During the time she spent living on the streets in Ogden, Mariella Mendoza would pray multiple times a day.

Pray that she wouldn’t be kicked out of the coffee shop where she often sought shelter in the mornings. Pray the police wouldn’t make her move from her small slice of grass on the ground in the park at night. Pray that if they did, she could get a spot in the overflow area in the lobby of the homeless shelter, where she would sleep on a gym mat on the floor.

“And then you pray again,” she told a group of nearly 50 people who gathered at a rally outside Salt Lake City Hall on Tuesday as part of a multi-month campaign for housing justice and equity. “You pray no one will harm you in your sleep. That is the reality of being a houseless person.”

Mendoza’s comments came ahead of what was at times a contentious and emotional public hearing on the City Council’s new plan to expand construction of micro-apartments across the city — an idea under consideration as a way to expand access to affordable housing.

Many of the more than 20 residents who addressed the council during that meeting focused on homelessness and the city’s affordable housing crisis generally. But others told council members that they think the small, typically one-room dwellings with a shared bathroom or kitchen — also called single-room occupancy units or SROs — are a positive step toward alleviating rental costs for cash-strapped Salt Lake City residents.

“We have offered a successful program where 90% of people who move into our facilities eventually go to better housing,” said Brent Willis, who owns an SRO in Kearns and operates Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande Hotel. “... We feel like we set the example of how they can operate.”

But some residents raised concerns about the impact of new SROs on existing neighborhoods, including the possibility of additional crime. And others said that while they support the concept, they have problems with the particulars of the policy, such as its parking requirements and location restrictions.

“It’s particularly strange to me why we see a lack of SROs around the University of Utah, where students, visiting academics, fellows, often need short term solutions for housing,” said Amy Hawkins, chairwoman of the Ballpark Community Council, who noted that her neighborhood is already home to a variety of social services. “When will the rest of the city accept their fair burden of the affordable housing solution?”

The land-use ordinance the council is considering would dramatically expand the number of zoning districts within city limits where SROs could be constructed, while also allowing the units to be rented on a weekly basis instead of only monthly. The ordinance requires a live-in property manager at SRO locations to oversee maintenance and operations and enforce conduct rules, along with monitoring surveillance cameras.

Salt Lake City currently allows micro-apartments in four kinds of city zoning areas near mass transit stations and in zones designated under a single kind of neighborhood zoning, known as form-based urban neighborhood two zoning. The new ordinance would permit SROs in as many as 20 additional zoning areas, covering, by some estimates, as much as 9% of the city’s developable land area.

These new areas would include zones common across the downtown business district and adjacent areas, zones that already allow residential mixed-use projects and an array of commercial and mixed-use districts in Sugar House and at The Gateway.

SROs would continue to be barred from a wide range of residential areas, including ones in Salt Lake City’s foothills; those zoned for single- and two-family dwellings; and in areas zoned for neighborhood commercial, community shopping and small business districts.

While the City Council did not take action on the issue Tuesday, it has tentatively scheduled a vote on the new ordinance, requested by Mayor Jackie Biskupski, for its May 7 meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

After the public hearing, Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said she thinks the council’s consideration of SROs is a “wonderful thing” for the city and also spoke to the residents who had addressed the council.

“I love the passion you bring to equity and housing in this city, to geographic equity and access to housing and also to the elimination of the concentration of poverty that is systemic, it is historic, it continues in many regards,” she said.

SROs are seen as a potential piece of the city’s efforts to address the state’s affordable housing crisis. They are considered a less expensive form of housing to build because the rooms are generally smaller and designed to share amenities, ostensibly letting builders pass savings on to future tenants.

Studies indicate that SROs are often among the lowest-cost options for housing for the elderly, disabled and working poor. According to city documents, Salt Lake City had nearly 800 SROs in the early 1980s compared with just 50 such units today, all of which are located at the Rio Grande Hotel at 428 West 300 South, adjacent to Pioneer Park.

If approved, the new rules would set minimum floor sizes for SRO living spaces at 150 square feet for single-tenant rooms and 200 square feet for those with two tenants, along with minimum standards for communal areas, property management and building security.

Biskupski has pressed to widen access to SROs as part of the city’s broader five-year housing plan, adopted in late 2017. Her staff has argued that the ordinance would boost housing access for those who are cost-burdened, improve equity across the city and help shape the housing market to better accommodate residents at various stages of life.