SLC’s push for more affordable housing runs into a wall of pushback

“I don’t feel this benefits anybody,” one resident complains, “except for real estate developers” as city strives to lower barriers to building more apartments, town homes, cottages and row houses.

New incentives that Salt Lake City leaders hope will encourage construction of more affordable housing took an extended thrashing Wednesday from low-income advocates and scores of residents who say the moves threaten their neighborhoods.

In the works since late 2019, the zoning changes — formerly known as the affordable housing overlay — are meant to reduce barriers and entice more infill and redevelopment on existing properties, with the prospect of new apartments, town homes, cottages, row houses and similar dwellings being built in more established enclaves of single-family homes.

The proposed tweaks to permitted density, additional building height, smaller setbacks, reduced parking required per dwelling, and expedited review at City Hall are backed by Mayor Erin Mendenhall, in an multifaceted attempt to help ease a dire lack of affordable rentals and homes for sale in Utah’s capital.

In exchange for taking advantage of the incentives, property owners and developers would be required to set aside roughly 20% of resulting new homes for rent subsidies, fitting the budgets of those making no more than 80% of the city’s median income. The timeline for putting these incentives in place calls for more hearings in spring and summer, followed by review and potential approval from the City Council — which has ultimate say on zoning changes — in the fall.

But a two-hour public hearing late Wednesday before the planning commission on the ideas drew torrents of criticism, from several perspectives — though all seemed to agree the envisioned rents of $1,400 a month under the plans were not really affordable to most residents.

“This is definitely better than nothing,” said Andra Ghent, commission member and a University of Utah professor of finance and real estate. But, Ghent added, “it’s really timid, given we’ve seen more than 35% growth in house prices in the last two years and more than 20% growth in rents.”

She and other commission members, including chairperson Amy Barry, urged city planners to lower the affordability requirements, while housing advocates with the grassroots group Wasatch Tenants United said the city’s current approach seemed to overlook blue-collar families being squeezed out by rising costs.

“This proposal is clearly not designed for renters, for ordinary working people or for people just looking for housing,” said group member David Newlin, who urged a rent threshold affordable to those making 30% of area median incomes instead — and that up to half of all new living spaces produced under the changes be kept affordable.

Rent of $1,400 a month, said Josh Memmott, another member of Wasatch Tenants United, “is more than double what I pay currently. It’s going to continue to push people out of the city as rent prices continue to increase.”

Trouble tracking short-term rentals

Residents and commission members alike complained about what they said was the city’s inadequate enforcement of its own existing rules against homeowners building accessory dwelling units such as backyard cottages or mother-in-law and garage apartments and then using them as short-term rentals listed on Airbnb or Vrbo.

Utah law restricts how city officials can use those websites and other tools to monitor short-term rentals, forcing them to rely on resident complaints.

“We already have a source of affordable housing that is being underused,” said commission member and U. professor of architecture Brenda Scheer, who added that she recently counted as many as 1,500 living units in the city being illegally deployed on a short-term basis.

“I can count them, but the city can’t,” she added, likening that to the future staffing burden of monitoring hundreds of new dwellings created under the latest incentives and meant to be kept affordable under deed restrictions.

“If we can’t enforce that,” Scheer asked, “how are we going to enforce this?”

City Planning Manager John Anderson later acknowledged that enforcement on short-term rentals “is an issue. We’d love to have more help.”

The zoning incentives also drew heavy pushback from homeowners on the east bench as well as the west side, with dozens testifying against the proposals compared to a handful in support. While many praised efforts to bring more affordable homes, they repeatedly voiced opposition to most of the plan’s main elements.

Leaders from five community councils — Yalecrest, Sugar House, Fairpark, Ballpark and Foothill-Sunnyside — joined individual residents in opposing changes that deal with what’s permitted in some of the city’s oldest single-family neighborhoods.

According to a senior city planner, Sara Javoronok, the incentives would allow town homes, three- and four-unit buildings and clusters of row houses and cottage developments on parcels that currently are zoned for single- or two-family homes — but only on properties located within a quarter mile of mass transit or adjacent to arterial streets.

The incentives, Javoronok said, are meant to widen the variety of housing types available in neighborhoods that long have been devoted exclusively to single-family homes and duplexes. City documents say housing constructed under the changes is “intended to be compatible in form with the neighborhood and provide for safe and comfortable places to live and play.”

Is this just a handout for developers?

Some residents clearly fear otherwise, saying resulting construction could alter, fragment and even destroy the character of their communities, lower property values and worsen problems with on-street parking.

“We live in a beautiful neighborhood that has been planned and well-thought out,” said Ben Oveson, a homeowner in the 15th and 15th neighborhood. “This kind of sidesteps that and all that is kind of thrown out the window and we’re saying, ‘This doesn’t have value anymore.’ "

“I don’t feel this benefits anybody,” Oveson added, “except for real estate developers.”

Community activist and landlord Cindy Cromer said the proposal “does absolutely nothing for people like me who already provide affordable or less expensive, more modest housing without subsidies.”

Several attendees called for direct rent controls on existing housing to improve affordability, which is prohibited by state law.

Residents also disputed the notion that increasing the city’s overall housing stock eventually would yield more affordable options.

Jan Lundquist, a resident of Highland Park, pointed to Sugar House, the Highland Drive corridor, the Brickyard area and 2100 South as places where “we already have so much high-density housing going up around us.”

“Why aren’t these being made more affordable?” Lundquist asked.

Deep worries also surfaced about the effects on traffic and parking from reducing on-street parking requirements to one space per new dwelling.

“Many of the current homes have single-car driveways or do not have driveways,” said Brian Burnett, vice chairman of the Foothill-Sunnyside Community Council. “This proposal means more people fighting for street parking.

“Families seek out this area because of its character and zoning,” he added. The proposed changes “will discourage families from buying here.”

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