‘Gentrification has arrived in Salt Lake City,’ and it’s wreaking havoc

As officials seek new ways to boost housing, projects are pricing out longtime residents in neighborhood after neighborhood.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tina Holt Balderamma talks about her struggles with her landlord and her upcoming eviction, March 11, 2021. Balderamma and several other residents of Salt Lake City's Guadalupe neighborhood face eviction and half-dozen homes are to be demolished to make way for Kozo House, a 312-unit apartment complex.

For longtime Salt Lake City residents and newcomers alike, it’s a part of the housing crisis happening right before their eyes.

Instances abound these days of older, more affordable and often brick homes or duplexes that define many neighborhoods being demolished for apartment projects, with new dwellings rented at often-pricey market rates.

Major pockets of residential and commercial land across Utah’s capital are seeing face-lifts or the wrecking ball and new construction as land values rise and housing demand skyrockets. Many longtime property owners are selling to developers or building themselves.

City officials say there’s a wave of residents being displaced by this trend, needing aid from social service agencies in the form of rent, deposits and relocation assistance in the aftermath of new market-rate apartment construction.

Blake Thomas, head of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods. said the pattern “is incredibly prevalent.”

“It is really concerning to our team,” Thomas recently told the City Council.

The council is now vetting a new zoning strategy meant to bring more smaller types of housing like tiny homes and cottages into some established neighborhoods. It’s part of a ramped-up campaign across city departments to boost affordable housing on multiple fronts.

But with homelessness a rising worry and the city’s housing markets now at a historic crux of demand and razor-thin supplies due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, the picture is evolving so fast city leaders aren’t always sure what to do next.

Critics warn some of the moves they’re considering may only add to the gentrification pipeline.

“Now more than ever, we simply cannot afford to make a bad situation worse for low-income households with irresponsible and poorly timed policy changes,” Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, wrote in a recent open letter to the council.

‘I don’t know where to go’

For Tina Holt Balderrama and her family, this couldn’t be more personal. The hospice nurse, who provides shelter to several displaced relatives and two grandchildren, faces eviction March 31. But affordable rents have never been this hard to find in the city.

Balderrama rents in a duplex among seven homes along the block at 200 North and 600 West set for demolition as part of a new 312-unit transit-friendly apartment complex to be built there called Kozo House, one of many multistory projects built recently along the North Temple corridor.

The child-rearing grandmother stood calmly by her doorstep while she spoke, surrounded by scores of animated supporters, as she described her small home of six years as “sacred land” — a place where she had nursed parents through terminal illness and cooked healing Sunday dinners, somewhere she wanted to stay.

Balderrama said her harried search for a comparable place has turned up nothing: “I don’t know where to go.

“The thing is, this city is just not for locals anymore. Gentrification has arrived in Salt Lake City — and it’s coming down strong,” she said. “And they’re choosing the poorest neighborhoods and just tearing down whatever they want.”

Social-justice activists, including members of the Rose Park Brown Berets, other displaced residents and about 40 other people, later joined her in noisy chants and a leaflet campaign in the neighborhood aimed at Modal Homes, the builder behind Kozo.

“Everybody here understands what gentrification is and how it is a product of capitalism,” a resident who gave his name as Xochiacatl L. yelled into a loudspeaker as he stood next to Balderrama. “Today, it’s this sister here and her little ones, but tomorrow it might be your neighborhood.”

Flashpoint: Lincoln Street

Many of the same issues have made a flashpoint of a rezoning proposed for five rental properties along 200 South near 900 East and Lincoln Street, also intended for a future higher-density residential project.

Recent evictions, the prospect for demolition of those older homes and a relative lack of resulting units available to average-income renters in the final project have all drawn strong censure at public hearings, after the rezone was rejected by the city Planning Commission and criticized by several community council members.

Bailey, advocates for renters, community council leaders and residents say it’s emblematic, too, of city zoning that works against “naturally occurring” affordable homes and moderate-income tenants, all in pursuit of adding more housing on the city’s severely limited acres still open to residential development.

The Lincoln Street proposal awaits a final vote by the council.

At the behest of Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the city is exploring half-dozen new strategies to encourage more affordable housing amid the current boom and beyond — including the zoning rules up for public input Tuesday that could introduce scads of smaller kinds of homes into northwest, central and south-central neighborhoods.

It’s a subtle policy move, too. Instead of rezoning properties one by one, these amendments to city code, if approved, would alter densities and other building ground rules on 1,030 long and skinny parcels spread around the city all in one stroke.

Many of these properties are located either north of Liberty Park; along 500 south near the University of Utah; around Forest Dale Golf Course; along Redwood Road near Rose Park Golf Course; or on either side of 700 East between Interstate 80 and 2700 South.

Postcards have gone out to hundreds of owners and residents, telling them what might be coming and of Tuesday’s 7 p.m. virtual public hearing on what are being called the RMF-30 changes.

Most of the lots are residential and two-thirds of those are occupied by single-family homes. But the rewrite is also meant as a tentative step toward applying the same approach in similar zones, with potential to affect thousands of other properties, city planners have said.

According to senior planner Kelsey Lindquist, the changes are meant to remove barriers and boost all housing development incrementally, not just affordable homes, while also imposing design standards to make new construction compatible with surrounding neighborhoods.

The changes also permit new cottage developments, tiny backyard homes on as little as 400 square feet and sideways row houses. Planners have designed special bonuses and width limits to encourage property owners to keep existing homes on the lots, Lindquist said.

But the city’s top planner, Nick Norris, acknowledged the city can’t guarantee how property owners will react, including whether they’ll agree to density gains in exchange for saving older housing. So the exact effects are difficult to predict.

“With any zoning rule,” he said, “we don’t know what their intentions will be over time.”

Not every lot owner has the capital to build, either. With heavy investment pouring into Wasatch Front real estate markets and the cost of a newly built town home in Salt Lake City over $1 million, Norris said, “the housing market’s been turned into a commodity, which starts to shatter the supply and demand model.”

The current reality, Norris added, is that many property owners are tearing down existing homes in these zones already, and the changes could entice them to keep more or build additional housing units in their stead.

Saving existing homes

City officials have also been pushing for a year or more on a fleshed-out policy for buffering the effects of housing getting demolished. This loss-mitigation guide will be tantamount to a gentrification playbook and, according to the city, will center on equity and cover preservation of existing homes, protections for vulnerable residents and requirements to fully replace any homes wiped away by new construction.

All Salt Lake City has now on the books, according to Tony Milner, policy and program manager with its Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development, is a rule that homes get replaced unit for unit when housing is destroyed, with only vague references to saving affordability.

“It’s got no teeth other than that,” Milner said.

The city is preparing to hire a consultant to help craft the new policy, drawing best practices from how Portland, Ore., and Seattle counter gentrification and input from Salt Lake City’s own Human Rights Commission, according to Angela Price, also with the city Department of Community and Neighborhoods.

That work could take nine months to a year, officials estimated.

Others want the policy to include new and more generous definitions of affordable rents and subsidies to keep replacement homes at those affordable levels. They’re also calling for more robust relocation assistance to residents losing their homes and rules that developers have to contribute up to $100,000 in replacement value to the city’s housing trust fund for each lost unit of housing.

Primarily, though, housing advocates want the loss policy in place as a safety net — well before the city tries some of its other strategies.

“There should be a system to know who is being evicted, lost a job, had an illness and now can no longer afford to remain in their current housing, so that person is helped before they are out on the street,” said Judi Short, a former Salt Lake City planning commissioner who now sits on the Sugar House Community Council.

“The city needs to take responsibility for providing housing for all citizens,” Short said, “and get on with it.”

Some council members have said they are willing to wait — despite worries that more residents are being displaced by the day.