Before Turner Bitton became an outspoken advocate for the west side and the chair of his neighborhood council, he lived in Ogden and tried multiple times to move to Salt Lake City.
Five years ago, he finally bought a home in Glendale. It was tough to pull that off then. It would be frighteningly harder today as his house doubled in price.
As stories of displacement and housing unaffordability kept coming Bitton’s way, it made him think of why people want to live in Utah’s capital and how, as a neighbor, to make that possible.
“I viewed Salt Lake City as the goal and the place where I wanted to be,” he said. “I love living in a place that has a diversity of incomes, diversity of people from all over the world, all kinds of cultures.”
The city then published “Thriving in Place,” a report showing the breadth of these displacements. For Bitton, that became a catalyst to gather other affordable housing advocates to support policies that add density to neighborhoods.
Thus was born SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors. Its mission: “Advocate for an equitable, thriving and sustainable city through housing that is accessible to all.”
The housing stock is lacking, Bitton said, and until that’s addressed, competition will prevail and prices will continue to soar. The city can address the problem by providing even more affordable housing incentives, he added, but land use policies must change, too.
“You can see just how much of our downtown space is occupied by parking,” he said. “You can see how few ‘missing middle houses’ are being built in many neighborhoods throughout the city because, in many cases, it’s impossible, if not illegal to build that type of housing.”
Other neighbors agreed and joined the effort.
For residents like Rosa Bandeirinha, a board member for SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors, this grassroots push represents a way to propel housing discussions. Bandeirinha is not a U.S. citizen yet, so she can’t vote. But this group helps her share the vision she has for the city where she has lived for years.
After moving from Portugal, she was stunned to see Salt Lake City’s car-centric culture. And though she adapted, she still finds harmful elements in the community.
“The city’s housing market is still guided by past racist and discriminatory policies, and those are encoded in our urban tissue, too,” Bandeirinha said. “So without bringing these concepts to the table and openly talking about them, we won’t be able to make structural changes in our city.”
She acknowledges that tearing up decades-old systems is no easy task but is convinced changes can occur and must be centered around some fundamentals.
“To achieve [secure and affordable housing], higher density is essential,” Bandeirinha said. “Transit is essential, mixed income and mixed use are also essential.”
More policies for more homes
Since its October 2022 founding, the group has advocated for policies that support diverse housing types for diverse populations. One of them is removing owner-occupancy requirements from accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, sometimes dubbed backyard cottages and granny flats.
In California, with a vast ADU market, Bitton said, the removal of that condition has led to more units being developed and rented.
“Any opportunity we have to create housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods, we should be taking advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “And ADUs are a big piece of that.”
The group also sent a letter to the Salt Lake City School District to consider partnering with the city to turn closed schools into housing. Most schools already have green spaces, parking and proximity to public transit.
Supporters also are calling for updated city rules on rentals. They want more frequent inspections to ensure safety and incentives for landlords to make improvements.
“One thing that’s unfortunate in our city is there are really deep divisions between the various stakeholders that are working on housing policy,” Bitton said. “And we hope to kind of work among those different groups to move forward in a direction that works for everybody.”
These policy approaches attracted longtime Yalecrest resident Atticus Edwards to the organization. Rather than a reactionary group, he said, it’s a proactively pro-housing bunch.
“No truly significant organization in Salt Lake City has yet come forth in favor of progressive zoning reform,” the board member wrote in an email. “SLC Neighbors is important because it is the first major organization to do so.”
A broken conversation
Development announcements often spark discussions in the planning commission and the City Council. Some residents organize to protect single-family zoning and reject proposals that could add density to their neighborhoods.
Although he said SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors wasn’t formed as a response to what some see as NIMBY (not in my backyard) arguments, Bitton acknowledged that there is a “broken conversation” in the city around housing.
“An example of that is that this debate about building more housing is often pitched in this conversation of either we’re going to have single-family homes or we’re going to have giant apartment complexes,” he said. “And that conversation is just fundamentally broken and not true.”
Instead of studying developments on a case-by-case basis, Bitton said, the city and its residents should examine the policies that would govern in the decades to come.
“All neighborhoods have to change in order to house the number of people that need housing in Salt Lake City,” he said. “And if we want Salt Lake City to maintain its tourism industry, to maintain its food and hospitality industry, we have to have space for the folks who work in those industries.”
Moving past NIMBY vs. YIMBY
Those following zoning discussions have heard of NIMBY and its antonym, YIMBY (yes in my backyard). They may also recognize a middle-ground term: PHIMBY (public housing in my backyard).
If board member Atticus Edwards had to choose, he would pick a combination of YIMBY and PHIMBY to describe SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors.
“Our organization works both sides of the equation: We are YIMBY, insofar as we do believe in zoning reform that facilitates more development of market-rate housing by private firms,” he said. “But we are PHIMBY, insofar as we believe that the city should build more affordable public housing as well.”
For his part, Bitton said the housing conversations have to move past acrimony over acronyms.
“These labels of ‘yes in my backyard’ or ‘not in my backyard’ are a false binary that we shouldn’t be stuck in. Because what we’re really talking about is creating opportunities in every part of the city to welcome more people to the city,” Bitton said. “And it’s not a zero-sum game. Creating housing for more people in Salt Lake City doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s about welcoming everyone who wants to find a place here.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.
Correction • Feb. 27, 2023, 1:10 p.m. • This story has been updated to correct when Turner Bitton moved into his Glendale home.