Better late than never? Salt Lake City tackles the ‘G’ word: gentrification and all its perils

Utah’s capital has launched a year of study and public input to understand how existing residents may be squeezed out by development, especially on the west side.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homeowners on West Euclid Avenue in Salt Lake City's Poplar Grove are upset over a proposed six-story, 40-unit apartment complex located in the middle of their block of mixed-income single-family homes, proposed to replace the home at left. Alberto Aviles and his wife Silvia who live next door to the right, and many neighbors in the community are concerned.

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As Salt Lake City’s latest patterns of rapid development reach deep into many neighborhoods, Daniel Cairo and fellow residents worry about their placid block in Poplar Grove.

Highway on-ramps, industrial sites and the commercial corridor along North Temple might buzz close by, but this west-side stretch of Euclid Avenue has kept a semi-secluded and friendly residential feel, Cairo and his neighbors say — until now.

Developers are pursuing at least four new projects in and around the area’s mostly single-family homes and well-kept yards, including a transit-oriented, six-story apartment complex midblock being proposed under special city zoning near TRAX lines.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daniel K. Cairo and his neighbors worry about a proposed six-story, 40-unit apartment complex proposed to replace the home, seen at right, on Euclid Avenue in Salt Lake City's Poplar Grove. Cairo, who lives next to the property, said it threatens to force existing residents out of the neighborhood. “We are gentrifying the west side," he said.

Nearby residents on Euclid and 200 South have seen higher-density housing slowly replacing original homes built a century ago, but they say this latest 40-unit proposal is too big, out of character with what’s around it and will likely force longtime residents — many of whom are Latino — to leave.

Dozens of neighbors oppose the plans over potential impacts on their quality of life, sewer lines and parking and what they say has been a lack of public review. But there are deeper concerns — up and down Euclid Avenue and across the city.

“We are gentrifying the west side, and we’ve seen this happen,” said Cairo, who noted the apartments proposed at 947 W. Euclid — adjoining his backyard on 200 South — are designed for transit and bike riders, with limited parking.

“That’s a very specific demographic,” he said. “You’re essentially pushing out people of color to bring in market-rate development for white, young, hipster individuals.”

Kerri Buxton, a nearby homeowner on Euclid Avenue, called the plans “aggressive” and noted that city zoning even designates the neighborhood as transitional, much to its chagrin.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kerri Buxton, a homeowner on Euclid Avenue, called plans for a new 40-unit apartment complex in her neighborhood “aggressive.”

What the city permits on blocks either side of North Temple and the TRAX lines has shifted over a decade without real public input, Buxton said. Now, as property values continue to rise, residents of the mixed-income neighborhood are being pressured almost daily to sell.

“It’s not what they promised us,” Buxton said of city officials, adding the latest project “is like dropping a bomb in the middle of the block. It’s too many people.”

Older Euclid Avenue residents living on fixed incomes in particular, Cairo added, are now “worried about being pushed out.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alberto Aviles, an 18-year resident of Euclid Ave in Salt Lake City's Poplar Grove, fears he could soon be shadowed by a six-story tall apartment complex next door to his small home. Neighbors upset over a proposed 40-unit apartment proposal, located in the middle of their block of mixed-income single-family homes, gathered to talk on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2021, outside the property, with some calling it "gentrification."

Alberto Aviles bought his small 125-year-old house on Euclid in 2003. It’s right next to the proposed 0.24-acre apartment block site, and he fears the 59-foot building could overshadow his home as it alters the whole street.

Said the 58-year-old Aviles: “I’m tired of going up against people who have all the money to do what they want to do.”

‘A deep, hard look’

City leaders highlight similar worries over how accelerated growth across Utah’s capital may be fueling or worsening trends of gentrification and involuntary displacement.

The mayor, City Council and top staff have launched a major study and public-listening campaign in hopes of quantifying and understanding both, especially how they are affecting disadvantaged neighborhoods and minority communities.

They hope to use the information and a sophisticated set of new mapping models to craft strategies that might protect existing residents from potentially harmful aspects of growth.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall said that, with city initiatives to create new affordable housing, “it was immediately apparent that while we needed to grow, we needed to find out ways to support our historically resilient communities, the people who built what Salt Lake City is and why it’s such a great place.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced in September the city will offer another $8 million in incentives for the development of affordable housing.

Salt Lake City, she said, “is one of relatively few that are taking a deep, hard look at what exactly is happening, beyond what we already know.”

Mendenhall and other officials acknowledge the newly hired consultant’s study will take a year to finish and is gearing up amid a widespread and fast-moving boom in residential and commercial construction already well underway.

That recent record-setting pace of development has caught leaders with an incomplete picture of where gentrification and involuntary displacement may be happening, what its causes are, who is being affected, and what the city might do to reduce it.

Several other policy moves drafted at City Hall and intended to address aspects of the city’s housing shortage, meanwhile, are on hold until that picture comes into sharper focus.

“I wish that, as a city, we would have started this 10 years ago,” the mayor said, adding the latest planning effort will be robust, community-driven and centered on equity.

“It’s unhelpful to assume that we’ve heard from these residents about the challenges they face in housing stability and other fundamental needs,” Mendenhall said. “And the kind of engagement we have to do is different. This will be engaging people at their front doors.”

Reaching the overlooked

The city hired a Berkeley-based consultant, Baird+Driskell Community Planning, for the challenge in late September under a $150,000 contract and its experts are now in the field, interviewing an initial round of key stakeholders to help define its approach.

The consulting firm with experience in several California cities will work with the city and researchers from the University of Utah’s Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and the Berkeley-based Urban Displacement Project in identifying and analyzing areas prone to gentrification and developing models for how to predict it.

A working panel created to guide the process hopes to convene its first meeting in December, according to David Driskell, co-founder and principal with Baird+Driskell. Garnering input from the community and a series of interested focus groups, Driskell said, will start in early 2022, in a stage of the process referred to as “story mapping.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neighborhoods that may be vulnerable to gentrification include the Ballpark area of Salt Lake City, as pictured on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.

“Part of the strategy,” he said, “is to not just define the issues and what’s not working, but to also look at assets in the community we want to sustain over time.”

In an effort to strengthen input from communities that often get overlooked, students and researchers at the U. will bolster the city’s outreach through a workshop course called Westside Studio. Driskell said organizers want residents of all stripes weigh in, “whether they’ve got 30 seconds, 30 minutes or three hours.”

By fall 2022, the city will use the findings, maps and community sentiment to enact rules that could ease displacement pressures, but Driskell added all are ready to act sooner if their study suggests more immediate action.

Tim Funk, an advocate on housing and homeless individuals at Crossroads Urban Center, agreed the gentrification study should have been conducted years ago but said that it nonetheless comes at a vital moment, when anxiety over displacement is high.

“This marks a new day,” Funk said, and “promises to be better than all the other stuff we’ve seen. This isn’t just about how bad things are, but also about how we think we should remedy it.”

Moving the needle

Coined in the 1960s, the term “gentrification” can hold different meanings depending on perspective.

New development, investments in upgrades and influxes of higher-income renters can be viewed as revitalizing for neighborhoods when they benefit a majority of residents, while those same factors can also spur involuntary displacement of existing families and businesses by pushing up rents or demolishing affordable housing.

What’s more, displacement can happen overnight or over years or decades, making it difficult to track.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

According to research at the Urban Displacement Project, some theories cast involuntary displacement as a kind of precursor, setting up neighborhoods for future gentrification. Studies also strongly suggest that cities with rapidly rising rents are more vulnerable.

Salt Lake City is seeing historic levels of infill construction and average rents are up about 10% over the past year alone and a stunning 37% from five years ago. Widespread economic hits from the pandemic have also put many residents on shakier financial footing.

Yet, for now, the city isn’t making major policy changes to mitigate displacement, at least until it gets into the study and hears from residents.

“At the end of the day,” said Blake Thomas, director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods, “a more expedited but poorly executed process that doesn’t seek community involvement won’t move the needle in the same way that a more thorough, deliberate and engaged process will.”

Right now, the city offers assistance to displaced residents in finding new housing, but its only real stab at addressing the trends via policy or programs is a requirement that developers replace any housing they tear down, without rules that the new units be comparably affordable.

There’s nothing on city books specifically protecting renters who might have to move when their rents become unaffordable nor for homeowners who feel compelled to sell as their neighborhoods change.

The city will rely on that same approach as the study progresses, said Thomas, but with an overarching goal, “that existing residents and families have the option to stay in their homes and neighborhoods to benefit from improvements and investment during one of the most rapid periods of residential development in history.”

‘Lost forever’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) LaFrance Apartments in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The property is now emptied of its residents and fenced off for demolition. This cluster of about 60 white row houses and walk-up apartments just east of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral has been an enclave of affordable housing for years.

As Utah’s Greek Orthodox community pursues plans for an upscale new church center, housing and other new buildings surrounding the Holy Trinity Cathedral, 279 S. 300 West in downtown Salt Lake City, its leaders have said they intend to demolish the adjoining church-owned La France Apartments.

The cluster of roughly 60 white row houses and walk-up apartments just east of the cathedral had been a kind of Bohemian enclave for artists, musicians and other lower-income city residents for decades.

The rental units have been emptied of tenants in recent months and fences went up around La France in early November as the Greek Orthodox Church of Greater Salt Lake advances its long-planned $300 million new campus and facilities.

No application has been submitted as yet for a demolition permit, a city planner confirmed.

Church leaders have said they plan to offer a similar number of moderately affordable apartments in one of the new development’s residential towers. But those are years away and existing La France residents, meanwhile, have had to find other dwellings in the region’s desperately tight rental market.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A home in Salt Lake City's distinct white La France Apartments, a set of about 60 aging row houses east of Holy Trinity Church, as seen in February 2020. The dwellings are now empty and slated for demolition.

“Farewell La France! We’ll never forget you!!” one resident wrote on Halloween on a Facebook page created to memorialize the community. “I know we’ll all miss our special community.”

Displaced residents have moved across the Salt Lake Valley and elsewhere. Several told The Salt Lake Tribune the church gave them plenty of notice and waived their last two months of rent but few received city aid and those that did said it wasn’t much relief, especially when cast against a dire shortage of affordable homes for purchase and those rocketing rents.

For Rhyannon Rodriguez, a former resident forced to move from Hawthorne House Apartments in the Avenues last year, displacement meant an eviction notice in the middle of a pandemic.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rhyannon Rodriguez, a Hawthorne House resident facing eviction, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020.

Rodriguez said she was struggling as a recently laid-off, lower-income food-service worker when she and dozens of residents were ordered out of apartments at 379 1st Ave. in August 2020 in tandem with a round of property upgrades and rent hikes. That sent her on a stress-laden, three-month search to find a comparable unit to fit her budget and living needs.

“Slap on some trendy paint job and double the rent,” Rodriguez wrote via email.

“These developers are only thinking about prospective rich tenants, while ignoring the living, breathing tenants right here, working to keep the city operating, who need housing now,” Rodriguez said, while also calling the owner of her old apartment “a textbook gentrifier.”

“I think about all those businesses and all that city character gone, lost forever,” she said of today’s spate of downtown growth.

‘It’s no longer yours’

Initial data compiled at City Hall and evidence from other cities suggest that communities of color and lower-income households are more vulnerable to displacement “in addition to negative health, economic, and stability outcomes,” said Thomas.

Mendenhall noted that gentrification and involuntary displacement also have pernicious roots in a long-term lack of investment in many lower-income areas of the city, along with historic patterns of urban renewal and housing discrimination that shunted minorities into certain neighborhoods in what’s called “redlining.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rose Park neighborhood on Salt Lake City's west side has shown signs of gentrification according to experts.

“So they said, ‘Here’s a place for you,’” the mayor remarked. “And now the market is saying, ‘I can pay more — and it’s no longer yours.’”

Thomas said those historical patterns have “long, compounding and intersecting legacies” the study hopes to get at, “including insufficient investment into communities, lack of mature tree canopies, the presence of environmental health hazards, and depressed property values.”

The city’s ultimate objective, he said, is to understand that context “to the best of our ability.”

A U. study in 2017 that looked at decades of housing and income data in Salt Lake City found no hard evidence of gentrification, although there were indications at the time it could be coming for some neighborhoods, including east of Liberty Park, Rose Park and Poplar Grove.

Researchers said they did uncover “troubling” signs of serious economic decline and worsening segregation in several west-side neighborhoods, while east-side areas of the city remained stable or improved — conditions that left impoverished residents more precarious.

“Salt Lake City has become two worlds, divided by income, race, educational attainment and a host of other socioeconomic factors,” Ivis Garcia, assistant professor at the U.’s Metropolitan Research Center and principal investigator, wrote in that study.

Garcia and her U. team are also partners in Salt Lake City’s latest deep dive on the topic.

Building on that research, Driskell said early indications are that higher home prices on the east side do appear to be driving would-be buyers westward in their home searches.

‘Right thing to do’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neighborhoods vulnerable to gentrification according to experts include the Ballpark area of Salt Lake City running from 900 S. To 2100 South and Interstate 15 to State Street as pictured on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.

Early analysis by the Urban Displacement Project, which studies the phenomenon worldwide using advanced technologies including machine learning, has highlighted west-side communities such as Rose Park, Glendale, Fairpark and Poplar Grove as susceptible.

When researchers factor in economic metrics such as unemployment and eviction data, that expands to include swaths of downtown, Capitol Hill, Central City, East Central, Liberty Wells, Ballpark and other areas.

City Council member Darin Mano, whose district includes some of those communities, noted the “double-edged sword” that gentrification reflects. Some run-down houses and neglected properties in neighborhoods he represents are a safety concern.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Development in the Salt Lake City's Ballpark area. City officials say their look at the causes and effects of gentrification will include residents and businesses.

“We want to improve neighborhoods and make them a better place that will increase economic mobility for the people who live there, especially in poorer parts of the city,” Mano said. “But we need to do that without displacing people and making sure that it still retains the rich character and history that those people have moved there for.

“I don’t believe it’s possible or the right thing to do,” he added, “to try to make cities stop changing.”

Yet Cairo and dozens of his neighbors on Poplar Grove’s Euclid Avenue and 200 South said city leaders should have seen all this coming and acted sooner. Growth is moving so quickly now, he said, the city may need to slow or even halt some projects for a year, until it has a better idea of how they are affecting residents.

“We know, as neighbors, that we’re not going to stop development in the city,” Cairo said, “but if you’re saying as a city you’re being thoughtful and conscious of listening to the public and to the neighborhoods, then do it.”