SLC mayor’s housing push includes converting former motels into deeply affordable units

Erin Mendenhall pushes a $6M request to speed up construction so hundreds of additional beds will be available when winter shelters close.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall discusses the plans for overflow shelters and transitional housing during a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

On the heels of $55 million in state cash doled out Friday to build 1,078 new affordable dwellings across six counties, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall wants to create hundreds of additional units for low-income residents and for unsheltered single adults — all in time for spring.

Mendenhall asked the City Council on Tuesday to steer $6 million in unspent capital improvement funds toward a series of grants to infuse money into properties that could be remodeled relatively quickly into transitional and permanent supportive housing.

The funding request, she said, is intended to accelerate completion of nearly 400 permanent or transitional beds — with many drawn from converted motels. This comes at a time when officials in various branches of government seem to be teaming up to address suffering around homelessness as winter approaches — and doing so in a way one top official called “unprecedented.”

Mendenhall’s announcement also comes as Millcreek has said it would offer the vacant Calvin S. Smith Library, 810 E. 3300 South, as a temporary overflow shelter to serve about 100 unsheltered folks on an emergency basis from October through April.

Using the former Salt Lake County library is expected to add 100 beds to more than 240 beds to be made available for winter overflow between St. Vincent de Paul and flexible capacity at the region’s existing resource centers for the unsheltered.

The idea behind the new $6 million request, the mayor and other officials said, is to have new beds and services in place when frigid temperatures lift and those overflow shelter beds no longer are available.

“We are making this happen. Not one of us. All of us together,” Mendenhall said at a news conference at City Hall, flanked by county Mayor Jenny Wilson, Utah’s homeless services coordinator, Wayne Niederhauser, and six of the seven City Council members.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall discusses plans for new permanent and transitional housing during a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

“This is what cooperative work in government looks like,” the Salt Lake City mayor said, calling it “an incredibly significant step. ... I’m grateful for such a massive step forward.”

Pending council approval, the $6 million in spending would target housing projects already in progress, Mendenhall and others said, with a goal of opening their units by mid-April for people now living on the streets, in emergency shelters or the region’s resource centers.

In a briefing to the City Council on Tuesday evening, Andrew Johnston, the city’s director of homeless policy and outreach, said preference on grants would go to those planning to bring on line at least 90 beds, with no single recipient receiving more than $2.5 million.

“The intent,” he said, “is to get immediate access to housing options.”

Several council members, many of whom have worked for years on the issue, said they were moved by the day’s display of support for the city from state and county officials in addressing homelessness.

“This is not a Salt Lake City problem alone,” said first-term council member Alejandro Puy. “This is a big challenge as a human crisis.”

The council has a Sept. 20 public hearing scheduled on the mayor’s expedited request, with grants potentially available within a couple of months.

Mendenhall said the city also would require grant recipients to offer robust supportive services for their residents along with living spaces.

The compressed timeline means eligible projects are all but sure to be adaptive reuses of existing buildings.

Earlier, Johnston said most of the grant recipients are likely to be motel conversion projects. Owners of some less expensive motels in the city have struggled financially during the pandemic, Johnston said, and many put their properties on the market.

“We’ve seen nonprofits who have gone out and purchased them, or private developers who have purchased them,” he said, “and a few of them have really focused on deeply affordable, permanent supportive housing options.”

Johnston reported the region’s resource centers for the homeless are hovering at 98% of capacity, a level he said he expected “for the foreseeable future.”

If officials can reach that 400-bed number — and that depends on how many developers apply and can open by April 15 — it would be among the largest single-year increases in permanent and transitional housing in Salt Lake City history.

The city’s Redevelopment Agency is simultaneously offering another $6 million to help fund and build deeply affordable homes as well as those better sized for families, while the city as a whole is set to release another $12 million in federal funds for housing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson discusses the plans for overflow shelters and transitional housing during a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Wilson said the county’s regular counts on homelessness show a 20% increase “largely due to COVID.” That and escalating rents, she said, “are putting a burden on the system as a whole.”

“The good news,” Wilson added, “is the investments over the past year are truly groundbreaking.”

State officials on Friday carved up $55 million to fund 1,078 affordable housing units in projects across Salt Lake, Weber, Utah, Sevier, Iron and Washington counties. Of those, 679 would be deeply affordable — typically affordable to someone making 20% of the region’s median incomes — and another 500 or more would help house Utah’s unsheltered population.

“We haven’t had anything like this before,” Niederhauser said Tuesday. “It takes a partnership like you’ve seen today between state and local governments to make this kind of thing happen.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser discusses the plans for overflow shelters and transitional housing during a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

“Homelessness,” he added, “is a statewide issue, and we’re addressing it on a statewide basis.”

On Tuesday, the state’s Commission on Housing Affordability contemplated a new budget request to the 2023 Legislature of $155 million for affordable housing, much of it to help fund construction of more deeply subsidized homes.

Officials from Salt Lake City have long complained that the capital city has carried more than its fair share of meeting the needs of the region’s unsheltered.

The recent $55 million in spending approved by the Utah Homelessness Council, which Niederhauser said was “an unprecedented event,” is a strong signal those concerns may have shifted. Though $30 million of that is going to eight projects in Salt Lake County, another $16 million will go to affordable housing projects in Weber, Washington and Utah counties and a combined $7 million will support such efforts in Iron and and Sevier counties.

While Salt Lake City has long been “the face” of Utah’s homelessness problem, City Council Chair Dan Dugan instead called it “an all-hands-on-deck issue” and offered the council’s cooperation.