Salt Lake City rezones hundreds of properties for new housing — with a twist

City Council votes 6-1 in favor of encouraging smaller home construction in many existing neighborhoods but opts to delay the move for 180 days.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Homes north of Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, as seen in fall 2020. Zoning changes approved Tuesday will allow construction of new types of homes such as backyard cottages and row houses on properties labeled with what the city called RMF-30 zoning.

It’s no secret Salt Lake City faces a dire shortage of affordable homes and elected leaders are scouring for ways to address it.

One of the tools they have opted to use, however, could worsen the housing crisis, at least according to some residents. So while the City Council has adopted a new density-friendly zoning approach for selected residential lots across the city, the move remains on pause for 180 days.

With an eager eye toward encouraging construction of a wider variety of housing types, leaders voted 6-1 on Tuesday in favor of the new zoning designed to entice more tiny homes, backyard cottages, row houses and other smaller dwellings in many existing neighborhoods.

The changes to so-called RMF-30 zoning enhance what can be built on properties with that zoning label, which applies to about 1,030 long, skinny residential parcels clustered on the city’s northwest side around Redwood Road, north of Liberty Park in Central City and around Fairmont Park in Sugar House, among other locations.

The RMF-30 tweaks were one of three zoning-centered strategies approved Tuesday after months or, in some cases, years of debate.

The other two involved a substantial widening of where dormitory-style shared housing can be built and a realignment of off-street parking rules for developers putting up new construction.

Will incentives for new homes lead to older ones being demolished?

The idea behind RMF-30 is to clear away regulatory barriers and create design standards for tucking new kinds of housing onto already developed lots, nearly 570 of which now feature single-family homes. For about 80% of the affected properties, the changes will boost the number of dwellings that owners are permitted to build.

In addition to incentivizing more home construction, city planners say the move will promote development compatible with existing residential areas and spur more housing variety — all long-term city goals.

Others are not so sure.

Many pockets of the city, critics note, already are seeing older homes, including distinct brick bungalows and duplexes offered for years as rentals, now being demolished in droves to make way for new development as land values climb.

The big worry: that rezoning these low-density residential lots will incentivize some owners to tear down even more homes to make way for additional smaller dwellings, accelerating the trend of displaced renters.

“They’re going to evict the lower-income people who are living there, then build a new place and charge twice or three times the rent they’re already charging,” warned Tim Funk, community advocate at Crossroads Urban Center, which aids Utah’s unsheltered population.

“This doesn’t do anything,” Funk said, “for the people we’re trying to help.”

Without taking other steps to reduce housing losses in the city, echoed Lynn Schwartz, a member of the Sugar House Community Council, “the passage of these ordinances is asking for a worse disaster than we have now.”

Others have called for additional requirements that new homes built under the altered zoning be kept affordable, which are not part of the RMF-30 revisions and are likely outside the city’s purview under state law.

Will the six-month delay help?

Many of those same worries led City Council members more than a year ago to set aside the RMF-30 changes, at least until the city heard back from consultants hired to give them policy advice on ways to stem gentrification and residents being displaced, part of a process called Thriving in Place.

In July, city leaders got an initial report that documented large numbers of renters, low-income families and people of color being forced out of the city for a lack of affordable housing.

In light of those and other concerns, city planners have since included a “density bonus” to the RMF-30 zoning changes, letting landowners add a dwelling to their property on top of the new ones permitted in cases where the owner preserves an existing home on the property.

Planners also have adjusted maximum lot widths and set overall limits on development on RMF-30 properties to lessen what is called “land banking,” where owners demolish buildings only to leave the land undeveloped while it appreciates in value.

Council member Alejandro Puy, who along with member Victoria Petro-Eschler urged the delay in RMF-30 taking effect, said the six-month hiatus would give City Hall “a cushion” to work out other measures to lessen the potential side effects, including new policy ideas for stemming displacement.

The city is just past a midpoint in its study of gentrification and is likely to get policy suggestions before year’s end. City Hall also is only partly along in overhauling other policies to help displaced residents and to avert housing losses, including requirements for developers on how and where they replace homes razed for new construction.

But even with the six-month delay, council member Amy Fowler, whose district spans many neighborhoods potentially affected by the RMF-30 changes, remained concerned about the threat to existing rental housing.

“While I do support a variety of housing stock,” Fowler told colleagues, “I don’t think those concerns have been addressed.”