Exclusive: We talk with SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall about the housing crisis

She expects a big year when a lot of groundbreaking initiatives take hold.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at a September news conference at City Hall on housing and homelessness. “We’re not nibbling at the edges anymore, that is certainly true,” the mayor said of the city's housing initiatives. “I think it’s exciting.”

Salt Lake City is about to dive headlong into far-reaching debates over how to address its acute lack of affordable housing.

What Mayor Erin Mendenhall calls “a perfect storm” — rapid growth, high-demand real estate markets and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — is now driving many residents to leave the city and has forced a sweeping look at housing policy. This comes even after City Hall has spent millions in recent years in an attempt to spur supplies of less-expensive homes and loosen a vise felt by many residents as rents climb.

This new year will bring a dramatic turn in those tactics as several major policy initiatives — some of them crafted and vetted for more than a year by the Mendenhall administration, urban planners, outside consultants and community advocates — start bubbling up to a receptive City Council.

Coming months will see collective heads figure out how to counter alarming patterns of gentrification and residents being displaced across the city.

There’s a package of zoning changes called an affordable housing overlay designed to bring a range of smaller homes into existing neighborhoods, and a like-minded move to streamline the path for property owners who want to add accessory dwellings in and around their homes.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune centered on housing, Mendenhall offered her vision of how this all fits together, saying the varied policy ideas amounted to “quite a head of steam moving forward.”

“We’re not nibbling at the edges anymore,” said the mayor. “I think it’s exciting.”

Here are excerpts from the exchange, edited for length and clarity:

What’s your view of the current state of housing in Salt Lake City?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall announces in 2021 another offer of millions to developers to entice them to build affordable homes in Salt Lake City. The city is now stepping up its tactics in hopes of easing a worsening housing shortage.

There’s been unprecedented and phenomenal pressure on households and the market itself that’s lasted many more years than historic economics would have predicted. And that’s been coupled with the economic crisis on many households and businesses from the pandemic.

Thirdly, we are the fastest-growing population in the nation. That’s backward looking but we have been in a perfect storm of housing loss and pressure, with relatively stagnant wages. And so it’s reasonable that Salt Lake City has invested more in affordable housing in the last three years — and last year alone — than we ever have before in that amount of time. But the creativity around it is also more than we’ve seen before, as a result of pressure.

So [The Other Side Academy] tiny-home village will be breaking ground hopefully in the new year, with the allowance we’ve made in our zoning for tiny homes to be created in certain residential zones.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The site at 1850 W. Indiana Ave. in Salt Lake City where officials expect construction to begin sometime this year of a tiny-home village that serves people experiencing homelessness.

We’re streamlining the [accessory dwelling unit] process and hoping to bring in preapproved plans. It’s one of the big hurdles as we’d like to see more ADUs created.

We’ve created the west-side investment pilot program. It’s about $4 million and the beginning of a wealth building tool helping both small-business owners and community organizations to come into ownership of the spaces they occupy and also to create wealth-building and homeownership for west-side residents.

You’ve said there isn’t one policy approach when it comes to addressing affordable housing and that you’ve got to pull lots of interlocking levers. Is that the best way to look at your administration’s approach?

That brings to mind the affordable housing overlay, which created such a spark in the community when we brought it to the planning commission this summer. It really tries to expand the opportunity and incentives for affordability to be created across the city and find greater geographic equity in the existence of affordability.

In my nine years in City Hall, that sparked one of the strongest community reactions I’ve see on a planning-generated concept. And I’m grateful for it. I decided that we needed to add another layer of public feedback, even though we’d received over 1,000 comments on it.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes along Salt Lake City's Harvey Milk Blvd. (900 South) and 600 East, just north of Liberty Park, as seen Oct. 20, 2020. City officials are studying a host of new zoning changes to encourage tiny homes and row homes in backyards in neighborhoods such as those north of Liberty Park.

We created this citizen volunteer focus group with representatives from neighborhoods across the city, housing advocates, developers and academics, people who study housing. We gave them the community’s main areas of concern from the hearing and all the feedback and asked them to try to come to consensus on what the recommendations could look like. They met three or four times and just completed that work. That gives the city more runway and thoughtfulness with the community to really have a better approach to citywide affordable housing. That’s coming.

It’s one example, too, of how, while we have the smartest urban planners in the region working for Salt Lake City Corp. and an incredible housing team in the Community and Neighborhoods [division], we still very much need the wisdom of our residents and the advocates and the builders, who will actually make or break projects.

So we’re nestling into the reality of the complexity of housing in a high-demand market like we have. You’ll see us do more like that as we go forward.

The affordable housing overlay seems to be guided by two key recognitions. One is the dire lack of places where new housing can actually go in the city under existing zoning. The other is the deep-seated nature of inequity with regard to where housing has been built in the past and the vestiges of redlining. Is that fair to say?

You’re right. We tried to do that with the [shared housing] expansion as well. The majority of the city is not zoned for residential, period.

It’s worth bringing up here the drought that we’re in and the crisis of the Great Salt Lake. That has ended up converging intellectually with this conversation about housing and “more people, more people” as we’re growing.

Our public utilities tell us that from 2000 to 2021, we’re using 30% less water, even though we have grown our population by tens of thousands. Part of that is water-wise landscaping and more conserving fixtures in buildings. Building technologies are more efficient, but mostly the way we’re growing is vertically. The way we’re adding people is not the same as other parts of the state of Utah that still surround homes with Kentucky bluegrass. That makes a major difference.

It’s important that Salt Lakers not necessarily equate our growing population with increasing consumption of water at the same scale. That makes the business case for what we’re doing and back when I was an air quality advocate, I learned quickly that on Capitol Hill, that business case moves the conversation.

But I also wanted to touch on the geographic equity part.

A digitized version of a 1940 redlining map of Salt Lake City by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation. Data from the University of Richmond's Mapping Inequality Project.

When I was first elected [to the Salt Lake City Council] in 2013, there were still affordable neighborhoods in this city. I lived in one and, like ink spilling out across paper, they’ve just been consumed by the market pressures.

I pushed on the council for the creation of a $4.5 million fund in the [city’s Redevelopment Agency] for affordable housing in high-opportunity areas [on the east side.] Nobody touched the money for a couple of years, and I felt like a mother wolf guarding her pups, because every time we’d go through the budget, my peers wanted to spend it on other things — and I can’t blame them. But I knew it was the only incentive on the table to try to entice affordability outside of areas that are basically defined by the former redlining zones.

It was a frustrating lesson for all of us on the council. What we learned is: It isn’t only the cost of land creating a disincentive for developers to put affordability into high-opportunity areas. It’s sustaining costs of decreased rent, when in a high-opportunity area, they know they could charge market rate or more and have much larger, ongoing revenue.

So I hope this $55 million from the state for affordable housing — with $27.5 million to the city — in the last legislative session signals a longer commitment to this housing crisis playing out and puts more on the table for developers to consider affordability where there was none originally.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, seen here with members of the City Council and County Mayor Jenny Wilson, during a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, after Utah lawmakers approved $55 million to help with deeply affordable housing.

I don’t think there’s an urban planner in this country, perhaps in the world, who wouldn’t agree that vibrant and vital communities are populated by mixed-income families. That is what a dynamic community is. That is what a healthy economy holds. That’s what a neighborhood with a grocery and coffee shop and bookstore and day care looks like. It’s everyone being able to share space in a community that, but for government investment be it federal, state or city, the market isn’t creating for us.

Yet we are seeing resistance to affordable housing in some neighborhoods and to the idea that having a mix of incomes is part of a healthy economy.

It’s easy to understand, in some ways, the reluctance that some of the public have to the notion of affordability being insisted upon by the city, because we are just barely beginning to see what that actually looks like and feels like in a modern city.

For more than 100 years, our collective notion of what that looks like is really not what’s being built today. It may be the illegal mother-in-law unit behind your house in the Avenues or the home on your street that’s divided into five apartments and poorly managed but affordable for those college students. Those are the kind of lived experiences of a lot of neighbors in the city.

We’re just beginning to give the communities a glimpse of what we’re really trying to cultivate here, which is that these apartments in multifamily housing can’t be distinguished from market-rate ones. They’re all managed by the same entity and they coexist just as a healthy neighborhood does.

There is something to the collective thinking about what even is affordability in my neighborhood.

Do you think you will be able to mitigate community concern over the affordable housing overlay with the input of this focus group?

I hope so. That is our intention. They’re all passionate, intelligent people, and I had hoped that they would be able to have productive and authentic conversations about their wisdom, their frustrations and their hopes. That seems to have come to fruition.

Is it a liability in a way that the city faces housing demand at all price points, from affordable to market rate to luxury, in that with all these high-end apartments going up, you sometimes get labeled by residents as promoting that type of housing over affordable?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The C9 Flats apartments in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

We’re a smart population here, and people are reading national papers and seeing the tools that are being leveraged in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Denver. There can be some assumptions about what cities in Utah may or may not be able to do constitutionally in our state, such as inclusionary zoning or rent control.

We have a very restrictive environment compared to many of our Western sister cities, in terms of population and economic growth. So we work creatively. Our housing policy team, led by Angela Price, they are builders. They are not literally building housing, but they are relationship and policy builders outside of City Hall.

I ask our team members to be vulnerable, because we are public servants and because we don’t have all the answers that we want yet. Some of our colleagues at the Legislature may actually have some of the answers we need and, by working with them, we could come to discover those solutions. And that’s meant we’ve been able to move housing policies forward and see state investment given to projects in our city.

You mentioned before about making a business case on Capitol Hill. Is there is a business case shaping up around the idea of inclusionary zoning in the sense of employers taking a role in building affordable housing for their workers?

What I’m seeing more is that there are some developers working in the city who are in this for the long term. They are not building to sell. There are some developers in the city who are thinking about what they’re producing in terms of building community, not just building front doors that produce revenue. The city is seeing that that is the type of developer who is coming to the table for some of our funding incentives.

But there are also developers who are helping us see how our current policies may be a barrier to creating more dynamic communities. That’s that outside wisdom that we are trying to cultivate on a daily basis, to converge with our policy people.

When the business and the development community start to make their own case, as is beginning to happen, for the benefits of economically dynamic communities, then it’s no longer, “The capital city wants to do inclusionary zoning and none of the developers do.” And that’s what’s happening.

So I don’t expect the state Legislature to act on their own volition to allow inclusionary zoning, but I do think that some right combination of voices is beginning to rise.

There have been some stark findings in the city’s recent gentrification study, and your administration and the City Council are now shaping policy goals to address it. Can you talk about that?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Oxford Place Apartments on 300 South in the shadow of The Cottonwood apartment complex, Tuesday, July 12, 2022. A new study says gentrification is rampant across Salt Lake City, with new development and rising rents squeezing out existing residents and cherished businesses and leaving no affordable neighborhoods in terms of housing.

The gentrification mitigation study was born out of years of trying to affect geographic equity with money and not seeing enough results. We realized that the pressure of the market and the incentives of development are much more complex and need to be considered holistically. And also that the community has answers. We didn’t hire an out-of-state consultant to create a plan in a vacuum, based on the data. This was one of the most community-intensive plans that we’ve come up with.

The Thriving in Place plan has 21 actions that I will bring to the City Council, either through policy or funding requests, which is every tool the community helped us uncover that may help us to keep our residents in their homes.

Salt Lake is amazing because of the people who live here, and our city is out ahead of the curve nationally on doing this kind of a deep exploration of how to keep communities intact. But it’s not static. That invitation remains open with our communities as we continue to bear these forces of market dynamics. We want to do everything we can to keep you in your home.

At the same time, we are working at the broader policy level to create more capacity in the system for homeownership. By that, I mean dynamic types of housing: more tiny homes, family-sized tiny homes, even multifamily buildings that have homeownership involved.

We want to create geographic equity in our housing stock across the city. We also recognize that housing affordability also has to do with transportation affordability and child care affordability. And the city is working in ways we never have before to try to genuinely create affordability in these other facets of daily budget stress on families and individuals.

So we are in this together. We’re coming up with the answers together. And we have quite a head of steam moving forward.

We’re making such broad progress on this housing challenge because we are staying at the table. We’re cultivating respect and trust with state partners and the development community. And we’re willing to learn every single day from the people we serve.

That’s an unstoppable combination.

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