Homeless shelters soon could be allowed across most of Salt Lake City under a proposal that would overhaul how Utah’s capital regulates where they are located.
Planning officials are asking the City Council to consider scrapping the old way of approving shelters — including homeless resource centers — in favor of a new process that they say will boost public engagement and give council members more power in deciding where such facilities go.
“It gives the city, and specifically the City Council, the ability to consider the context of an area in which a potential future shelter may be situated,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, “which is not an ability that we had in our previous ordinance.”
While a number of community leaders embrace the idea, some fear the switch could further politicize the placement of homeless shelters — by shifting the decision to elected council members — and ultimately make it more difficult to provide such centers.
The proposed changes come in the wake of a moratorium on new shelters imposed by Mendenhall last year and extended by council members in April.
Before the moratorium, shelters were allowed as a conditional use in three zoning districts, clustered primarily around Interstate 15 and downtown. They could be approved by the planning commission and steer clear of council consideration.
The process was more streamlined but the potential locations more limited.
Planning Manager Kelsey Lindquist said during a Facebook livestream event Tuesday that restricting the shelters to specific zoning areas, either as a permitted use or conditional use, is not equitable.
Under the new approach, property owners or other entities would need to apply for a zoning amendment that would place additional restrictions and standards on prospective shelter sites. The amendment would require compliance with shelter regulations and could be applied to all zoning locations in the city, except for light- and heavy-manufacturing districts.
“This provides the city [the ability] to conduct more public engagement, also allows a comprehensive consideration to community issues,” Lindquist said, “and enables the City Council to be the final decision-maker.”
If the new rules are adopted, they will have minimal effect on existing shelters and operators, Planning Director Nick Norris said. “We wanted to make sure that we were taking that into account, so any existing shelter can continue to operate just as they have in the past.”
Planning officials spent the spring and summer talking to other city departments, service providers, businesspeople, advocates and people experiencing homelessness to figure out how to improve the road map to building new shelters.
One of those people was Turner Bitton, chair of the Glendale Neighborhood Council.
“The thing that I took away from it was a desire from the planning staff to really thread the needle in recognizing the need to provide services to unsheltered folks,” Bitton said in an interview, “and also to take into account the impact that these shelters can have on neighborhoods.”
Those conversations, he said, led to a good compromise.
If the plan gets the council’s nod, he said, it would create a more orderly, consistent public process for bringing new shelters on line and emphasize the opportunity for a more equitable spread of resources.
Areas west of State Street, Bitton said, have historically been home to a disproportionate amount of social services and low-income housing.
“While I think all of those things are net benefits to a community,” he said, “it is important, just for the sake of managing the impact that these shelters have on neighborhoods, to spread them throughout the city.”
Esther Hunter, chair of the East Central Community Council, sees the city’s proposed rules as a step in the right direction. Opening up the possibility of building shelters in more parts of the city, she said, can work if the centers are properly managed and policed.
“As long as they have the support and the case management, I think it’s kind, it’s reasonable, it’s fair,” she said. “Because there are going to be a whole series of criteria that people are actually looking at, plus people are going to be able to give feedback on.”
But Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, said the proposal only complicates the path to building more shelters because it focuses on the negative effects of the facilities and gives project opponents more time to organize.
“It basically is setting the council up to face more political fallout,” he said, “for any decision they make.”
Ballpark Community Council Chair Amy J. Hawkins views the proposal is fairer than the old process, but she remains skeptical about how it will play out in practice.
“In reality, are we going to see that land costs and political will and a variety of other factors are going to come into play?” she said. “Yeah, I think we will.”
Opportunities to weigh in
City staffers will present the proposal to the planning commission Wednesday. The commission plans a public hearing on the measure Dec. 14.
The public will have an opportunity to learn more and ask questions at an open house Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Public Safety Building, 475 S. 300 East.
Planning officials have until Jan. 31 to send the proposal to the council, which then has until May 3 to adopt regulations. If council members do not approve a new process by that deadline, the former rules will automatically kick back in.
Council members will hold at least one public hearing on the proposal before voting on it.
The public may also respond to a survey at www.slc.gov/hrc-storymap.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.