Salt Lake City has seen a breakthrough in a years-long effort to steer new affordable housing projects to the east side.

Elected leaders approved their first loan Tuesday from a $4.5 million pool of cash created more than two years ago to encourage housing construction in “high opportunity” neighborhoods, where access to better-paying jobs, quality schools, reliable transit and more parks boosts residents’ chances of upward mobility.

The $1.8 million, low-interest loan will go to a nonprofit developer, Community Development Corp. of Utah, to help it build Richmond Flats, a 60-unit apartment project located at about 2960 S. Richmond St., near Salt Lake City’s border with Millcreek.

“Speaking of unicorns, we’ve got one here,” said Alison Rowland, a policy analyst for the Salt Lake City Council.

The council, in its role overseeing the city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA), made a total of $10.8 million available in late 2017 to subsidize new housing projects with dwellings affordable to residents making below-average incomes. Roughly $6.2 million of that was for affordable housing projects anywhere in the city.

But at the urging of Councilwoman and now Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall, $4.5 million of the RDA housing money was reserved solely to subsidize projects in more affluent areas such as the Greater Avenues, Sugar House and the foothills east of 1300 East.

That cash had gone unspent until now — even as the city’s housing needs have grown more stark. Developers, reportedly facing a lack of available land on the east side and other challenges, have instead sought cash for projects in the city’s center and west sides.

After two years of no takers, the council faced pressure to open up access to the high-opportunity funds, particularly from backers of west-side housing developments passed over by the city for financial help.

“This was tough,” Councilwoman Amy Fowler said Tuesday. “We knew that we had $4.5 million sitting out there and we wanted to get it out.”

In September, the city doled out $6.1 million of the $6.2 million devoted to affordable housing located anywhere in the city, spending it on grants and low-interest loans to four projects that will either build or refurbish a total of 210 dwellings.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

At the same time, the city extended its deadline for applicants in high-opportunity areas. City officials also debated changing the policy to make additional neighborhoods eligible for the cash — a move Mendenhall resisted.

“Thank you all for your patience,” the mayor-elect told colleagues Tuesday, as the Richmond Flats loan was approved. “I started to feel like a mother bear guarding a wounded cub with wolves circling.”

The 1.42-acre Richmond Flats project, with a total cost of $13 million, falls within a high-opportunity area spanning neighborhoods north and east of the Brickyard Plaza shopping mall. Long focused on single-family homes, the locale is said to transitioning to being more urban, after Millcreek’s incorporation as a city in 2016.

According to city documents, Community Development Corp. of Utah (CDCU) intends to build a mix of one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments for residents earning between 41% and 60% of the area’s median household income, now at about $54,000 yearly.

Though the project site is currently zoned for single-family homes, CDCU is expected to seek to have it rezoned to allow for multifamily housing. The developer will also go after low-income housing tax credits and other government aid to help keep the apartments affordable for up to 50 years, according to city analysts.

Construction is set to begin in August, with completion expected sometime in mid-2022.