Noisy protesters temporarily disrupted proceedings at City Hall late Tuesday after Salt Lake City leaders approved a controversial rezone, clearing the way for demolition of older affordable homes to build a new four-story boardinghouse in Central City.
The City Council voted unanimously in favor of the zoning change and altering the city’s master plan, which allows developers to construct higher-density housing on 10 residential properties located on Bueno Avenue, just east of 700 East between 100 South and 200 South.
Seconds later, roughly 50 members of a group called Wasatch Tenants United — which advocates for renters, the homeless and for affordable housing policies — burst into loud and angry chants of “Micro-units, no Bueno!” and “Block by block, street by street” in the hallway outside, prompting Council Chair Amy Fowler to call a 10-minute recess.
“I would not like you to go outside,” Fowler told fellow council members as protesters yelled through the door of the chamber.
The Bueno Avenue project would wipe out a six-unit apartment building and seven single-family homes, reportedly in poor condition, according to city staffers. In their place, Colorado-based Four Square Holdings wants to construct a building of 65 units of what the city is calling shared housing: bedrooms leased individually with a private bathroom along with shared kitchens and living spaces. Plans also call for an additional building with amenities for future tenants, fronting 700 East.
The controversial proposal has been under review for nearly a year, including a vote opposing the change from the city’s planning commission. Few projects in the capital city’s recent construction boom have framed the challenges of its ongoing housing crisis more starkly.
Opponents have argued at several public hearings that the project threatens to cheapen living standards for tenants across the city and evict current residents when replacement housing is all but impossible to find.
“We continue to discourage the displacement of existing neighbors who depend on moderately priced homes they are currently renting,” Melinda Main, co-chair of the city’s East Central Community Council, said in one hearing. “We oppose the continued destruction of the fabric of our neighborhoods by classifying existing workforce housing as worthless and beyond repair.”
Supporters say the boardinghouse and its 192 bedrooms represent a creative approach to adding to the city’s affordable housing stock with home types not available elsewhere in the city.
“This innovative project,” resident Reed Synderman said, “is going to provide some attainably priced housing that is otherwise nonexistent in Salt Lake.”
One of the property owners, Jeff Taylor, said he had worked closely with existing residents to make sure they had adequate resources to move, including help with deposits.
“We are going to be supporting any tenant that needs assistance,” Taylor said.
Protesters urged the rezone be rejected, saying construction of what are labeled micro-units at the site would lower standards of living throughout the city, partly by allowing developers “to force working people into sharing kitchens.”
“Basic human decency requires that people have their own bathroom and kitchen in their apartment unit,” resident Alex Poulton told the council after the vote.
“This is speculative real estate investment,” project opponent Jen Colby said last week. “It’s worth a gamble for developers to bet high on contracts for lower zoned properties, file applications for a minimum fee, and then take a chance the city might grant an upzone and gift them a few hundred thousand dollars or more in inflated land values.”
“Why go to Las Vegas,” Colby said, “if your odds seem really good here?”
In addition to fighting the Bueno Avenue plans, Wasatch Tenants United, in conjunction with other groups, has protested recent mass evictions and pressed Salt Lake City to adopt inclusionary zoning to mandate that affordable homes be included in all residential developments. In February, its members called for the city’s Redevelopment Agency director, Danny Walz, to resign over city tax incentives provided to developers of upscale apartments.
“We wanted the City Council to know we were there and that we wanted to be heard,” one member, Benjamin Petrie, said Wednesday of the City Hall protest. “Especially when it comes to issues of housing, we make our perspectives known, and we get kind of platitudes back.”
Visibly shaken after Tuesday’s protest, Fowler later said that, while she avidly encouraged public input and civic protest, “to create a space where it is disruptive to our meeting and intimidate people, both council members and others who may have wanted to be able to have their voices heard, is simply inappropriate.”
“I pride myself on making sure people feel comfortable enough to say how they feel,” she said, her voice buckling with emotion.
Developers behind the Bueno Avenue project have made clear for months they would proceed with demolition of its existing housing, even if the zoning change was not approved, and build luxury town homes instead under already-permitted land rights.
On a motion from council member Chris Wharton, the council added several restrictions on the project before approving the zoning change, including a proviso that units in the rooming house be rented for at least 30 days at a time and that materials from demolition be reused where possible.
Referring to the city’s dire shortage of affordable housing, Wharton also nudged the council and Mayor Erin Mendenhall to shore up city policies to better protect “naturally occurring” affordable housing when similar zoning changes are proposed in the future. The city is already developing new approaches to mitigate housing loss as part of an ongoing study on gentrification, he noted, but it needs clearer guidance in place until that yearlong process wraps up.
Upcoming changes in city policy “are going to bring a lot of different housing types to different areas of the city to help meet our ongoing need for housing,” Wharton said. “We’re letting the community know that these are issues we are working on.”