SLC sets new rules for placing homeless shelters. Could it politicize the process?

They now can go virtually anywhere in the city. Will neighborhood equity really occur?

Homeless shelters will now be allowed in most areas of Salt Lake City under an ordinance the City Council passed just hours before a self-imposed deadline to set new regulations was due to expire.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall called the new rules a “much-needed improvement” to how the city decides where shelters go.

“Instead of concentrating services in one or two neighborhoods,” she said in a statement, “the new ordinance requires a holistic and transparent process that better accounts for the well-being of unsheltered residents and impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.”

Now, homeless shelters will be permitted in all zones except those dedicated to manufacturing. Previously, shelters were allowed in only a few zones, primarily clustered around Interstate 15 and downtown.

The council’s unanimous approval Tuesday night came just as a moratorium on new shelters was set to expire. If the council hadn’t met the May 3 deadline, the old rules for approving these centers would have automatically been reinstated.

In 2021, Mendenhall issued an order temporarily banning the development of new shelters. The council voted last year to extend that pause while city staffers crafted new regulations.

What are the rules for new homeless shelters?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Gail Miller Resource Center in Salt Lake City. The city has approved new rules allowing such centers to be located in more parts of Utah's capital.

Under the new rules, anyone who wants to open a homeless shelter will need to apply for a special zoning amendment and get council approval, even if it invites the possibility of politicizing a potential placement.

Previously, those who wanted to build a shelter could do so only in an allowable zone and had to obtain the planning commission’s nod for a conditional use permit — a process that sidestepped council consideration.

“Under Utah state law, if a conditional use is on the land use tables in a certain district, it’s almost impossible not to allow that in,” council Chair Darin Mano said. “This gives us a little bit more control about having input into where [a shelter] would go.”

By opening up essentially the whole city to potentially hosting a shelter, Mano said, the new regulations could provide more geographic equity.

The new regulations, which do not affect existing shelters, require the council to hold a public hearing within 90 days of the city receiving a proposal for a new facility. Council members then would consider voting within a “reasonable” time after that.

Before a shelter can be approved, an applicant must provide a detailed list of anticipated support services that would be available on-site, the identified funding sources to operate the center, and anticipated funding requests to the city for the shelter.

Council members would consider how close a proposed facility would be to other shelters, how it would affect city services, the anticipated impact to public spaces within a quarter-mile of the new center, equity among neighborhoods in hosting shelters, and proximity to support services.

If support services would not be within walking distance, a transportation plan would be required.

The new ordinance also sets up rules to govern temporary shelters. Such shelters would be allowed when temperatures are expected to drop below 32 degrees and existing shelters are expected to be at capacity, and when the state requires emergency shelters during winter months.

Temporary shelters would be placed only in zoning districts that allow hotels, motels or multifamily housing, or in government-owned buildings.

City, community leaders respond

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unsheltered people move their belongings in Salt Lake City in March. The city has approved new rules allowing shelters to be located in more parts of Utah's capital.

While the new rules open the possibility of more neighborhoods sharing the responsibility of helping those experiencing homelessness, Mano said the process is still “imperfect” and subject to political pressure from areas that have historically been effective in voicing opposition to projects.

City decision-makers failed, he said, when they did not place a shelter on the east side as the first homeless resource centers were built.

“I’m still disappointed about that,” he said. “... We need to be electing people who will care about those issues and will see through what is just a way to keep themselves in power, and really make decisions that are equitable for the whole city.”

Turner Bitton, chair of the Glendale Neighborhood Council, lauded the end of the moratorium and said expanding the placement of shelters is a win for the city, even if some have concerns about politics seeping into conversations about where to put them.

“This is one of those small victories,” he said, “that we should all celebrate.”

The biggest improvement the city could make in how it handles the development of homeless shelters, Bitton said, is for neighborhoods to embrace sheltering the unhoused population.

“While I don’t minimize the impacts that shelters can have,” he said, “we have a moral responsibility to be supportive of sheltering folks that are unsheltered.”

Judi Short, vice chair of the Sugar House Community Council, said she personally has no problem with allowing shelters in more areas but noted others do take issue with hosting a potentially challenging facility.

“Homeless centers seem to attract people who use drugs and people who sell drugs,” she said. “That’s just one example. If there’s no way to keep those people away from the homeless center, then they gather there.”

Preventing issues, Short said, all comes down to how the sites are managed.

Yalecrest Community Council Chair Jan Hemming said her neighborhood has been supportive of opening up other parts of the city to hosting homeless shelters since the city began discussing changing how it deals with the centers.

Hemming said she wanted an emphasis on safety for those who would stay in the shelters and those who live near the facilities, and she believes the council has tried to achieve that. Council members were responsive to community concerns as they weighed a new ordinance, she said, and engaged in useful conversations with residents.

Under the new rules, Hemming said, she would welcome shelter options in her neighborhood.

“If the safety feature can be addressed, and it’s beneficial for those who use the shelters as well as the surrounding neighborhood,” she said, “then, yes, we’re supportive.”

Ballpark Community Council Chair Amy Hawkins said the new rules are a move in the right direction and set a standard for the city’s investment in zoning equity.

While putting the decision in the council’s hands improves fairness, she said, she’s skeptical of how market forces will influence the location of shelters.

“It’s hard to think about how resources for these kinds of services,” she said, “aren’t still going to be concentrated in certain areas of the city where land costs are cheaper.”