Salt Lake City leaders switch gears as housing crisis worsens

Shared housing, reduced parking, higher densities — These are ways Utah’s capital aims to boost affordable homes.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A resident walks her dog along 600 East between 800 South and 900 South in Salt Lake City. The neighborhood is one of many being considered for zoning changes to encourage more affordable housing.

Until now, Salt Lake City’s efforts to encourage more affordable housing have usually relied on cash.

Utah’s capital has poured millions yearly into enticing construction of affordable rentals through low-interest loans, grants and discounts on land to help developers pull their projects over the goal line, often with gap financing.

City Hall has experimented with zoning and new land uses as well, by altering what it allows on some kinds of properties to encourage more residential development. That’s meant new building heights on transit corridors such as 400 South and North Temple, for example, and tweaks to rules for single-family homeowners wanting to add accessory dwellings.

But the region’s housing crisis worsened dramatically with the pandemic, and elected leaders speak often these days of needing “new tools” to address the problem. The City Council reached Tuesday for some new policies that aren’t really new, resurrecting a series of proposed housing-related zoning changes vetted one way or another at City Hall at least since 2018 but then set aside.

The council gave a thumbs-up to putting the much-discussed overhauls to off-street parking rules, shared housing and tiny homes tucked into existing residential neighborhoods on a fast track, with potential approval coming in weeks.

The move comes as Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration is also readying a separate and controversial package of other zoning incentives, known early on as its affordable housing overlay, aimed at boosting density in neighborhoods.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A resident works at 600 East, just north of Liberty Park. Salt Lake City envisions allowing tiny homes and row houses across the city, including in Central City and north of Liberty Park.

The shift in tactics also comes after a midpoint briefing in July from paid consultants studying gentrification and displacement of existing residents as the Wasatch Front’s urban core adds population at a record pace.

That initial “Thriving in Place” report found, among other alarming trends, that the city has no more affordable neighborhoods and escalating rents are forcing many vulnerable residents to move away, especially people of color and families with lower incomes.

“The results were even more scary than what we already knew,” City Council member Darin Mano said. “Housing affordability is such an incredibly multifaceted problem with a lot of different solutions.

“Zoning,” added Mano, an architect with training in urban design, “is one of those solutions.”

But each of the contemplated moves carries controversy with it. Here’s a look at what the city is exploring:

Shared housing

(Four Square Holdings, via Salt Lake City) An aerial rending of the proposed Bueno Avenue Apartments, 129 S. 700 East in Salt Lake City.

This involves changing how the city defines and allows certain types of shared housing that its zoning code used to call “single resident occupancy,” or SROs. If approved, the move would dramatically expand where the city permits these dormlike settings, in which tenants would lease small rooms and share facilities such as living areas, kitchens or bathrooms.

Forty years ago, hundreds of these rooms were available across the city for weekly rent, and many saw SROs as playing a crucial role in keeping those at risk of homelessness off the streets.

Over time, though, they’ve been virtually zoned out of the city, according to City Planning Director Nick Norris, who noted the “growing market demand for this type of housing.”

“This is one tool in the housing toolbox,” Norris said. “No one is forced into it.”

Shared housing is allowed in a few city zones close to transit, but the proposed changes would permit them in many residential neighborhoods, commercial and business districts and across the downtown area. All told, the move more than quadruples where shared housing would be allowed, to 3,798 acres, up from 688 acres.

Though the west side would be affected along Redwood Road and 5600 West, nearly 1,846 acres of the new areas fall east of Interstate 15, including swaths of Central City, Liberty Park and Sugar House. In the past, that uneven spread prompted disputes about geographic equity among council members, leading them to postpone action.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City Council has approved a controversial rezone that will let developers demolish several older affordable homes at about 724 E. Bueno Avenue, pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, and replace them with two buildings — one a four-story boardinghouse, with shared kitchens and living spaces.

Trends toward more shared housing worry some working-class renters who say it threatens to diminish overall living standards while forcing the city’s prevailing rents up on a square-footage basis. Several outpourings of opposition surfaced this year to a 192-unit rooming house project known as Bueno Avenue Apartments along 700 East.

The updated shared-housing plan includes design standards for how projects can be built and requirements for 24-hour on-site management, meant to address potential neighborhood concerns. Caps are being considered on the number of units per shared amenity, and council members are eyeing limits on what facilities tenants share — maybe a kitchen or a bathroom but not both, as the proposed changes now allow.

The council is also weighing different rules for developers putting up new shared housing and those who are adapting existing buildings. With caveats, council members seem receptive to revamping shared housing and potentially adding more transitional units.

“This type of housing is very important,” said council member Alejandro Puy “and needed.”

Off-street parking

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) On- and off-street parking in the Granary District in Salt Lake City. Officials are contemplating a major overhaul to the city's requirements for off-street parking in a move meant to promote more affordable housing.

This proposal simplifies and recalibrates the city’s often complicated approach to the number of parking stalls it requires commercial and residential developers to include in the projects they build.

The off-street parking revisions essentially put all the different flavors of parking rules across city zones into one of four groups — a move Norris said would “strike a balance between those regulations that were overly burdensome and barriers, while also creating avenues to promote alternative use of transit to get back to creating a more walkable, bikeable city.”

But the changes certainly would lower off-street parking requirements for new developments in many areas, particularly those near TRAX lines and frequently served bus routes and for neighborhoods with robust networks of bike lanes.

Parking is costly and easing those stall quotas per living unit, some thinking goes, would reduce construction expenses and result in more affordable apartments while ultimately encouraging residents to use transit instead of their vehicles, with the added benefit of improving air quality over the Salt Lake Valley.

That reasoning infuriates some residents and business owners, especially in areas where on-street parking is already in high demand, highlighting how divisive the issue can be.

Council member Chris Wharton said city policies are seen either as too permissive for too much parking, or “there’s nowhere to park and it defies logic to have less than one stall per unit or multiple stalls.”

“I don’t know of an American city,” Wharton said, “that doesn’t have some kind of parking problem.”

The overhaul to off-street parking has been brewing for several years and the changes are being closely watched by developers.

“Parking is very expensive for multifamily housing,” senior city planner Eric Daems said, “and this is going to offer them a lot more flexibility.”

Smaller homes

The council is pursuing changes to what’s allowed on so-called RMF-30 properties, a kind of residential neighborhood zoning in place on about 1,030 long and skinny lots across the city. They want to promote smaller “missing middle” housing, too.

By tweaking setbacks, shrinking lot widths and creating design standards, these changes would allow new varieties of backyard cottages, side row houses, town homes and other smaller dwellings to be built on RMF-30 parcels, roughly two-thirds of which are now occupied by single-family homes.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A model small home on display at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City. Similar homes such as backyard cottages, side row houses and tiny homes would be encouraged in some of the city's residential neighborhoods, under a proposed zoning change.

Supporters of this approach believe these smaller units would be less expensive to produce and increase density gradually in ways that ease impacts on existing neighborhoods, while promising to bring residents at various stages of life more housing options.

The City Council balked at this move in early 2021. That was partly out of concerns that letting some property owners add units to their lots risked accelerating the demolition of many older existing homes that are considered “naturally occurring” affordable rentals.

The RMF-30 changes include added density bonuses aimed at avoiding that, letting those who decide to preserve an existing structure to add additional smaller homes around it on the same parcel. Yet council member Amy Fowler said even with those bonuses, she remains concerned about the potential loss of existing housing.

“I want all the tools in the toolbox for all the different housing stocks,” Fowler said of the RMF-30 changes. “But I also am here representing the people that elected me and my own concerns.”