Salt Lake City debating plan to allow tiny homes, row houses around Liberty Park, Trolley Square

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caroline Jameson walks her dog along 600 East between 800 and 900 South, in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

A proposal aimed at tucking more homes into some Salt Lake City neighborhoods is under intense debate as the pandemic makes affordable housing even more scarce than before.

The idea is to allow tiny homes and row homes to sprout in backyards in neighborhoods north of Liberty Park, east of Trolley Square and near Forest Dale Golf Course. The zoning change is intended to help provide affordable housing, but advocates worry the plan may backfire.

In reaction, the City Council has decided to push off a vote until at least mid-November.

Council Chairman Chris Wharton said several new strategies on affordable housing in the works at City Hall “definitely haven’t gotten the type of attention that they might normally get if it weren’t such an extraordinary year.”

Wharton said council members planned to seek a “holistic approach” from Mayor Erin Mendenhall, tying together a variety of moves in light of other pressing concerns with COVID-19 and social justice reforms.

“We obviously want to move forward and we want to move forward quickly, because we all know that we’re in the midst of a housing crisis,” Wharton said in an interview. “But we also want to get it right.”

A burst of demand from out-of-state residents is pushing Utah’s housing prices higher and making the lack of affordable homes worse. At the same time, market rate rents and construction costs continue to rise.

The housing crisis that we have isn’t just about affordability. It’s about the market-rate units as well,” Wharton said. “We have just an unprecedented amount of people wanting to move to Salt Lake City."

Housing hardships due to the health crisis also are rising, advocates point out.

“In this pandemic time, we know that it’s going to be more and more difficult to afford a place to live,” said Tim Funk, a housing activist with Crossroad Urban Center in Salt Lake City. “And we think that this zoning proposal just adds to that.”

These changes flow from a housing plan released under former Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

Lots in these neighborhoods enjoy a low-density zoning now mostly used for older single-family homes, duplexes and other multifamily buildings, with parcels concentrated in residential areas north of Liberty Park between downtown and the University of Utah.

The zoning changes are meant to encourage additional units and new types of housing such as cottages, row houses set at an angle and tiny homes tucked into the existing neighborhoods — mostly by reducing the land area per unit.

The new approach would halve square footages per dwelling in many cases, reduce minimum lot width requirements and make other tweaks aimed at allowing for more units on the same parcel, including tiny homes at 400 square feet or less. Those homes could be built on 1,500 square feet instead of 5,000, under the new rules.

The ordinance tweaks would also introduce a lot width maximum in hopes of preventing land owners from amassing several lots for larger developments of more than three units. The proposal also gives owners a density advantage for homes already built on the parcels, to discourage their demolition.

Planning Director Nick Norris said the changes better allow for in-fill construction that is more compatible with existing neighborhoods. He called the rezoning “a long game,” with the most substantial impacts likely “10 and 15 years down the road.”

Councilman Darin Mano has said the new approach could lead to development that was “smaller, more neighborhood-sensitive” — though he, Wharton, and council member Amy Fowler also have weighed in with more immediate worries from constituents over impacts on existing houses.

So have housing activists, who are warning the changes could entice some landowners to tear down their older, single-family homes to build additional units, typically with higher rents than the original residents are unlikely to afford.

Several urged the city to slow down its debate on the revisions, to study the potential loss and ways to replace affordable homes as well as the chances for displacing lower-income renters, particularly those of color.

“This zoning change at this time in the city’s history is dangerous,” said June Hiatt, with a grassroots group called Utah Renters Together.

She and neighborhood activists say adding to supplies of new housing in Salt Lake City at more expensive market prices does not address a lack of homes with more affordable rents. They urged the city to adopt a strict one-for-one replacement policy on affordable homes, requiring that new units be similarly priced to those they replace.

They’re also urging the city to fold its review of this zoning into a broader package of housing strategies that Mendenhall and city staffers have been vetting with the public since late last year — including a tighter policy on replacing housing that gets torn down.