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Salt Lake City is seeing widespread gentrification that has all but wiped out affordable neighborhoods citywide, leaving droves of renters on a financial precipice and with little alternative but to move elsewhere.
Community members are speaking up, too, often with a sharpening sense of exclusion, distrust in government and a loss of power. Those affected point to a dire shortage of affordable housing as the main cause and their prevailing perception, according to new research, is that wealthier newcomers are squeezing them out.
An astonishing 1 in 5 residents who spoke to researchers said they’ve had to move due to rising rents, and 13% said they were about to do so. Almost everyone — 95% — is concerned about gentrification on some level, and 40% of folks interviewed said they knew someone who has been forced to move out of the city due to financial or development pressures.
And there appear to be fewer places in the city or adjoining communities for them to land with each passing day.
Gentrification and patterns of displacement now prevail in almost every corner of Utah’s capital — and the trends are rapidly getting worse, according to a new in-depth study called “Thriving in Place.”
“Every single area in Salt Lake City, unfortunately, that is affordable is experiencing displacement,” said Tim Thomas, with the Urban Displacement Project, based at the University of California, Berkeley, who is among the study’s authors. “That means when low-income households are displaced, there’s nowhere for them to go.”
Thomas and others write “there are no ‘more affordable’ neighborhoods in Salt Lake City where lower-income families can move,” noting that experts with the project — which has studied gentrification trends in cities around the world — had never seen such conditions before.
Part of that flows from the geography of the Wasatch Front, Thomas said, with its mountains acting as barriers to spreading suburbs as its urban core expands. But another big factor, experts and everyday residents say, is a lack of affordable homes.
“Salt Lake City is growing and there are not enough housing units overall,” researchers wrote, and the effects of the housing gap are falling hardest on its lowest-income families.
Households earning 50% to 80% of area median incomes are also getting pushed out, especially in places such as Ballpark, Central City, east of Liberty Park, pockets of downtown and even swaths of the city’s more affluent east bench along Wasatch Drive and Foothill Boulevard.
SLC is losing diversity
Trends revealed in Thriving in Place are also related to painful aspects of America’s past.
Gentrification reflects historic conditions of discrimination and segregation put in place three or more generations ago, researchers note, in a combination of financial and zoning strategies called redlining that excluded minorities from portions of urban areas across the country.
Computer-modeling analysis and maps from Thriving in Place show neighborhoods experiencing high displacement risks today closely align with areas redlined in the past.
One cultural activist who lives on Salt Lake City’s west side and who goes by Xochiacatl L., campaigns against gentrification and displacement every day in hopes of educating those affected about its causes and historical sources.
He’s got a sign in his front yard near North Temple that reads, “Gentrification is violence.”
“You have to understand that it’s been practiced recently because of economics,” he said, “but it’s part of the foundation of this country. It’s a consequence of colonization.”
Under Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the city has a stated goal of keeping existing residents in place as much as possible and letting them enjoy the positive effects of an upswing in investment and housing construction in the city.
”What we’re trying to achieve is to create a place where people can stay, afford to be, raise their families, grow old and thrive,” said David Driskell, project manager for Thriving in Place and co-founder of Baird + Driskell Community Planning in Berkeley, one of the city’s hired consultants. “All of this work is towards creating a healthy, thriving place for everybody.“
But among the set of alarming findings, nearly half the city’s renters are now considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their paychecks on housing, making them “highly vulnerable” to displacement as rents continue to rise.
The trends, which are thought to have accelerated in the past two years, are now pinching more than half of households headed by white residents and even higher shares of households of color.
“We’re losing diversity as a result of displacement,” Driskell said. “It’s impacting a lot of people in many areas of the city, not in just one or two neighborhoods.”
Officials find the data ‘scary’
Not everyone believes gentrification is all negative, with 11% of residents saying it makes their community better. While the toughest effects fall on renters, many homeowners told researchers it wasn’t affecting them, though many worried for the next generation.
Where, residents asked, will their kids end up living?
“My daughter, who is 30, can’t afford to live in my area despite a good-paying job,” said one frustrated resident interviewed. “If she loses her current rental, I don’t know where she will go.”
Gentrification is pushing many residents to other communities — such as West Valley City, Tooele or Stansbury Park — but also leaving increasing numbers of them living with relatives, taking on longer commutes, or homeless.
Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano, whose District 5 spans Ballpark and other areas identified as particularly hard hit by gentrification, said the new findings left him terrified.
“It is very scary,” echoed Council Chair Dan Dugan, who — along with other elected leaders, housing officials, city planners and others — will use the new data to craft policies to counter gentrification.
There are reasons to think gentrification and displacement might be even more pronounced than portrayed in the city’s latest assessment.
The analysis and mapping portions of the latest report were based on U.S. census data drawn from 2015 to 2019 — well before the coronavirus pandemic, which has only deepened many of the underlying factors driving the trends, including heightening housing demand and spurring more in-migration.
But the study, which focused primarily on renters, has also drawn on an unprecedented public outreach since mid-2021. Some 2,150 residents across Utah’s capital have weighed in through a campaign driven by students and instructors at the University of Utah, as well as focus groups and interviews with key experts.
The latest findings are phase one, city officials and consultants note, with phase two devoted to hammering out prospective solutions sometime in September.
What are the solutions?
Among other effects, Thriving in Place results are expected to add weight and urgency to a series of housing proposals already making their way through City Hall, some of them designed to foster more affordable housing construction, including in more established neighborhoods with single-family homes.
Some of those affordable housing incentives have already sparked resistance from some residents. For their part, study authors are recommending enticements for new residential development to create “gentle” infill and rental housing opportunities “in every neighborhood.”
They also urge city officials to consider increasing spending on rental assistance and increasing government ownership of housing “through mission-driven nonprofits, co-ops, shared housing, public housing and land trusts.”
New proposals are likely to be drafted as well, though some of the initial ideas proposed by the city’s consultants — including support of living wages — are precluded by state law.
Blake Thomas, director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods, pointed out that Salt Lake City has spent $24.5 million on rental assistance in the past two years and another $4.6 million on homeless services and support for neighborhoods.
The City Council, meanwhile, has recently approved $20.1 million more for housing, with a top priority on homes defined as “deeply affordable,” as in, accessible for residents at lower-income levels.
“All this goes a very long way,” Thomas said, though he added that “continued investment is needed to support Salt Lake City residents.”