Mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall unveils plans to expand Salt Lake City’s affordable housing

Donning a hard hat and a florescent vest Wednesday, Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Erin Mendenhall toured the construction site of Project Open, a development she said reflected key elements of her approach to affordable housing — an environmentally sustainable building with a variety of housing types.

“Every Salt Lake resident deserves safe, affordable and accessible housing,” said Mendenhall, now in her second term on the City Council representing Salt Lake City’s District 5.

She said rising numbers of seniors on fixed incomes, young people and businesses are being squeezed out of the city, creating a drain on its otherwise thriving economy. An expanded stock of housing of all types, Mendenhall said, would help alleviate those and other economic inequities.

“It’s important really that our next mayor has the kind of city government skill that I am bringing to this race,” Mendenhall said. “We don’t have time for a learning curve. We are in the crisis today.”

Key highlights of her housing platform, she said, call for low-interest loans for landlords to help them keep rental properties maintained without rent hikes; a “top-to-bottom” review of city zoning to encourage more homes and apartments; and a vow to convert any new athlete housing created for a potential second Winter Olympics to affordable homes afterward.

Mendenhall faces state Sen. Luz Escamilla in the city’s mayoral election on Nov. 5. Current Mayor Jackie Biskupski is not seeking a second term.

Escamilla’s campaign spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday, saying the candidate planned to showcase her own housing policies in coming weeks.

Project Open, at 355 N. 500 West, is an innovative, energy-efficient housing project, driven by the Salt Lake City firm Giv Development — a project that Mendenhall and other City Council members helped get off the ground two years ago with a low-interest city loan.

Giv Development, a combined nonprofit/for-profit company, is in its second phase of constructing what will be 235 dwellings in four buildings close to the North Temple TRAX station. When completed, the development will offer homes ranging from micro-dwellings, units with added business spaces at street level and transitional housing for the recently homeless to market-rate apartments and townhomes.

Chris Parker, one of Giv Development’s co-owners, called the project an open-source experiment in housing, one that carefully surveys and analyzes living dynamics of residents, metrics on energy and construction costs and myriad other details in hopes of pushing useful findings out to other affordable-housing developers.

“We really are interested in the entirety of someone’s life and how you might affect that with where they live, instead of just focusing on being a rain shield for people,” Parker said.

Project Open, whose roughly 160 existing residents also participate in an electric car-sharing program, is powered by solar arrays in Millard County.

Calling Project Open “incredible,” Mendenhall praised the west side housing enclave for its affordability, mix of housing types, environmental sustainability and focus on “connecting people’s internal well-being with their housing environment and making that connection intentional.”

“I hope it will be a blueprint for future developments," she said.

Along with other members of the city’s redevelopment agency board, Mendenhall also voted to approve a $1 million, low-interest RDA loan to Giv Development toward the project’s $17 million price tag. On Wednesday, she called it an example of leveraging taxpayer funds to maximize community benefit.

“The real fact is that the city and the mayor cannot control the housing market,” Mendenhall said. “There’s no magic wand that a mayor can wave really, but there are some levers she can pull” to encourage more affordable homes.

Shortly after Biskupski took office in 2016, Mendenhall also worked to pull together nearly $21 million from various RDA accounts to spend on encouraging affordable housing across the city, including $4.5 million devoted to steering projects toward more affluent neighborhoods on the east side. So far, only one developer has sought that east-side incentive.

The city has spent an estimated $38 million since 2016 to encourage affordable housing, including discounts on land for developers, low-interest lending and other subsidies. By city estimates, it has helped build nearly 2,000 housing rentals affordable to those making below the area’s median wages.

“This city has done more, faster toward affordable housing than any other city in the state,” Mendenhall said. “We are learning as we go and we’re working with the development community to figure out how do we get more out of the investments of our precious taxpayer dollars.”