In SLC’s new housing plan, helping struggling renters is a bigger priority than ever

The plan also sets an ambitious goal of permitting up to 10,000 new housing units by the end of 2027.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes north of Liberty Park. Salt Lake City is finalizing a new five-year plan for housing intended to spur construction of up to 10,000 new homes, offer assistance to the city's renters and boost homeownership opportunities for lower-income households.

Salt Lake City has a newly detailed plan for attacking its worsening housing crisis, and it centers on two main strategies: build more affordable homes and help struggling renters.

The five-year blueprint sets an ambitious goal of permitting up to 10,000 new housing units by the end of 2027, with 2,000 of those subsidized to be more moderately affordable and another 2,000 to be kept at “deeply affordable” levels — within financial reach of residents making less than 30% of an area’s median wage.

Titled “Housing SLC 2023-2027,” it also sets out to provide assistance to up to 10,000 low-income residents yearly who are at risk of being displaced due to escalating rents and housing instability, while also providing more chances at homeownership for low-income households.

Drafted in tandem with an unprecedented public listening effort over more than a year, the housing plan created under Mayor Erin Mendenhall is nearing final review and approval by the Salt Lake City Council. From there, the 30-page document would undergird housing policies for years to come.

Its list of action items fulfills a requirement from the Utah Legislature that all cities adopt at least a handful of policies from a long menu of ways to encourage more moderately priced housing. Salt Lake City, however, wants to pursue 18 strategies through 2027.

“The current housing crisis demands a bold response,” says the draft plan, which envisions “a more affordable city for everyone” and “prioritizes individuals and households who face the greatest risk of housing insecurity, displacement, and homelessness.”

Here are key takeaways:

Even amid a housing boom, rents and home prices are unaffordable for most residents.

Thousands of apartments are under construction citywide, but the plan identifies “a mismatch” between housing types the market is producing and what the community needs. Resident want more affordability, more home types in the so-called “missing middle” between apartments and single-family housing, and more options suitable for families.

The current housing shortage, the plan says, is most dire for those at lower incomes but affects folks up and down the earnings scale.

Underpinning the crisis: Wage growth has lagged behind increases in rents and home prices, at least since 2005. Most city residents are now renters and more than half spend well more than 30% of their incomes on housing, making them “cost-burdened” and leaving them more vulnerable to displacement or homelessness.

A related city study called “Thriving in Place” found that 93% of those surveyed were concerned about ongoing gentrification and that Utah’s capital now has no “more affordable” neighborhoods where moderate wage earners might land, with the problem falling heavily on people of color, families, seniors and students.

The gap is widening even as the city continues to grow rapidly, adding 13,283 residents between 2010 and 2020 with projections it will gain 6,000-plus more in the next five years.

The housing shortage is hard to measure, but it’s easily in the thousands.

Based on inventories as of 2021, the city had deficits in homes affordable to those at the lowest wages, but also for those making 80% of median incomes or above, including higher-end homes. All told, the shortage adds up to about 14,065 units at various levels, not including about 3,000 additional units the city expects to need for new residents.

The five-year plan centers on boosting housing construction at the most affordable end to meet an identified 5,500-unit gap in deeply affordable homes, on the assumption the strategy will free up homes at higher rents and for-sale prices as well.

The idea is that for-profit markets will continue to foster construction of market-rate homes but a lack of available land in the city’s higher-density zones and elevated building costs combined with capped rents prevent private developers from making deeply affordable housing financially viable.

“We’re going to focus on the people who need it the most and the types of housing that are hardest to build,” said Ruedigar Matthes, the point person on the plan.

Even with what City Council chair Darin Mano called the plan’s lofty goals compared to other cities, “it clearly doesn’t solve the problem in five years. ... Even if we make all of these goals, we’re still only accomplishing a third of what’s actually needed.”

“I’m sad that we can’t get to 100% of the needs faster,” Mano said, “so we just need to move as quickly as we can.”

Helping renters is a higher priority than ever.

This ties back to “Thriving in Place” findings, which revealed a shocking picture of widespread financial instability among tens of thousands of renters. As of 2021, the city pushed well past 50% of its renters being cost-burdened for the first time since at least 2005 — and rents keep rising faster than most paychecks.

But with policy moves such as rent control and inclusionary zoning barred under Utah law, the city instead hopes to expand its ability to assist struggling renters in other ways, including dedicating new money to a pool of relocation assistance funds meant to help those pushed out by new development or rising rents.

The city also intends to step up tracking and analysis of displacement patterns; strengthen renter protections; advocate for them legally and do more to educate them on their rights; and give low-income residents preference on access to new rent-subsidized housing when they get displaced.

There’s a big push in the plan, too, for refurbishing and preserving older affordable homes as a way to keep tenants in place, along with encouraging adaptive reuse of historic buildings and converting former hotels and motels into new housing. The city vows to adopt a community benefit approach to its future land use debates, the plan says, to prioritize the preservation or replacement of affordable homes as a condition of approving zoning changes.

The city wants to develop and support programs that allow tenants to gain financial equity where they live based on their tenure as renters, and create new ways to boost homeownership and wealth-building for at least 1,000 low-income households.

The city is pushing on many new fronts.

Utah’s capital cannot solve a regional and national housing problem on its own, the plan and elected leaders concede. So the blueprint’s bundle of strategies calls again and again for collaborating with nonprofits and other agencies and governments on ways to boost moderate-income housing.

The plan says the city will keep pushing to create more tiny homes and accessory dwellings in existing neighborhoods as well as raising permitted density and building heights around its transit corridors and job centers. It wants to expand a community land trust for acquiring and offering acreage for affordable housing projects and continue to cut or waive impact fees it charges on new developments that include affordable homes.

And the city will keep up efforts to help those who are homeless or at risk of losing their housing, including offering millions in grants for those developing supportive housing and expanding outreach programs to connect the unsheltered with more resources.

City officials say they’ll do more to lobby state officials and leaders in other cities, as well, to get them to address more of their share of the problem.

“This shouldn’t be only for the capital city to solve,” said council member Alejandro Puy. “Every jurisdiction in the state needs to be on the same page.”