SLC’s approved budget has a surprising addition

The fiscal 2024 spending plan includes the city’s first investment in legal homeless camps, but the details are thin.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man experiencing homelessness pulls his belongings over the railroad tracks near 800 West and South Temple on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Salt Lake City's fiscal 2024 budget includes funding for sanctioned homeless camps.

Salt Lake City will invest a half-million dollars in sanctioned camping for unhoused Utahns as calls to provide a low-barrier shelter option grow louder among community activists, political candidates and council members.

The allocation, part of the $448.5 million general fund budget the council unanimously adopted Tuesday night, is intended to serve as a grant for organizations willing to host small groups of tent or recreational vehicle campers.

“We’ve been hearing about sanctioned camping for a while now,” west-side council member Victoria Petro said in a statement. “The city’s funding to design such a program provides temporary solutions until we can adequately house individuals experiencing homelessness across our state.”

The money will go into a holding account while officials figure out how best to use it, and will require an additional council vote to be spent.

Fellow west-side council member Alejandro Puy, who, along with Petro, is among the most vocal advocates of sanctioned camping, wrote in a text message that the city has a duty to try new approaches.

“I am hoping this catalytic grant can help organizations doing the work every day,” he said, “to create safe and dignified places for our unsheltered neighbors.”

Sanctioned camping is poised to become a major topic in this year’s mayoral race. Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s most prominent challenger, former Mayor Rocky Anderson, has pitched the legal campsites as a chief policy proposal to address homelessness.

“We put an end [to unsanctioned camping],” he said, “but we have a humane, decent alternative.”

Mendenhall, meanwhile, has said facilitating a sanctioned encampment falls outside of the city’s scope. Still, she said, she supports an effort by state homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser to open a low-barrier village of shed-type structures.

“I know that [Niederhauser is] hopeful he can have something before this winter, and that’s our ambition as well,” she said in an extended interview on homelessness. “This should be run from the state level with the state’s investment, and we are happy to be partners.”

In a statement Wednesday, Mendenhall applauded the council’s commitment to exploring sanctioned camping in Utah’s capital.

“While we continue working with the state on its effort to create a more permanent sanctioned encampment, we can potentially explore some smaller pilot projects in the city,” she said. “This discussion has come a long way in recent months, and I’m confident that the unprecedented level of partnership between my office, the council, the county, the state Office of Homeless Services, and service providers will continue to create additional safe space for our unsheltered neighbors.”

The city’s fiscal 2024 budget expands its response to homelessness with new investments in affordable housing and new programs intended to help those living on the streets.

Money for affordable housing and homelessness issues

The budget includes:

• Funding to create a new RV compliance team aimed at quelling issues when those vehicles park in neighborhoods.

• Additional money for cleaning around encampments.

• Nearly $17 million for affordable housing in the city’s Redevelopment Agency budget, with more than $3 million more in the general and housing funds.

• Incentives to build new accessory dwelling units, such as backyard cottages.

• A new program to offer low-interest loans to pay for repairs and upgrades to existing affordable housing.

Outside of homelessness and housing, the budget makes new investments in transportation and clean air initiatives.

Other budget highlights from transit to trains to e-bikes

Other items include:

• An expansion to a transit pass program created last year to help students, staffers and faculty of the Salt Lake City School District. This fiscal year, the program will include funding to offer a pass to a student’s parent or guardian.

• Money for quick-install traffic-calming measures, such as crosswalk signs, and railroad crossing signs that provide real-time information about how long it will take a train to pass.

• A new full-time staffer to create an incentive program for purchasing products that contribute to improved air quality, such as electric bikes. The council will require funding for the program to stay in a holding account until more details are established.

• An expanded program to offset some of the impacts of street construction on small businesses.

• A slate of Great Salt Lake protection strategies the mayor announced in her January State of the City address, including an audit of the city’s water use.

• A new fund that will offer city workers reimbursements up to $500 for an expansive list of expenses, including ski passes and travel for out-of-state abortions and other medical procedures.

• A 5% raise for all city workers.

The newly approved spending plan will not require any tax increases, but proposed raises for public safety employees in the future may require an increase next year.

Fiscal 2024 begins July 1.