Salt Lake City’s west-siders heard from candidates running for mayor about homelessness, affordable housing and environmental justice — at a forum where the lingering question was about how to fight the unequal treatment the west side has received for years.
“We cannot undo decades of disinvestment and inequity in just four years. But we have made some huge steps forward,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said at the Tuesday forum at the Utah State Fairpark, organized by the Westside Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake.
Mendenhall, who is running for reelection, cited what she said were positive steps for the west side: the coming construction of Glendale Regional Park, the UTA On Demand rideshare program, and the 25,000 free bus passes given to kids, teachers and parents.
Attorney Rocky Anderson, who is seeking to win back the job he held from 2000 to 2008, criticized Mendenhall for not pushing back on such projects as the Utah Inland Port and the proposed expansion of Interstate 15 — which is expected to bring more pollution to the west side, where the air already is worse than the east side.
“Don’t accept the idea that the expansion of I-15 is a given. The mayor does,” Anderson said. “She says, ‘Well, if the Legislature wants it, I want a seat at the table.’ That’s what she said when she bowed down to the inland port.”
Anderson said the city should commit to suing polluters that contribute to emissions of particulate matter, which disproportionately affect west-siders.
Mendenhall shot back at Anderson about the inland port: “It’s a little embarrassing to have somebody stand up here and tell the west side that you could have stopped it. … You fought, we fought, and the option of walking away or suing the state continuously does not keep us at the table.”
With the city being a blue dot in a supermajority Republican state, Mendenhall said, the mayor’s job is to get the best results she or he can negotiate — rather than being run over.
Michael Valentine, known for his unsuccessful campaign to save the century-old Utah Theater, said that he would like to see the Environmental Protection Agency step in to help save the Great Salt Lake. He also showed frustration with what he called the products of “institutional racism.”
“We talked about the discrepancy between east and west side,” Valentine said. “I don’t think that the inland port would have ever been built on the east side. It’s a disgrace.”
What the three candidates did agree on was that the city needs to increase public transit, to accommodate growth and mitigate pollution.
A constant in Anderson’s campaign has been criticism of Mendenhall’s handling of the city’s homelessness problems — for which everyone, he said, is paying the consequences.
Anderson said that Mendenhall’s administration had betrayed residents and businesses by not regulating the city’s homeless encampments in the city, by ordering sweeps of the camps — sometimes called “abatements” — and for a slow response last winter, when at least five unsheltered people died on the streets.
“It’s time that we get the encampments out of our city for everybody’s benefit,” Anderson said, “and create an adequate sanctioned [camp].”
Mendenhall countered that the city should not have to solve homelessness alone — and said the state and Salt Lake County are investing more in the creation of affordable housing, and making other cities take a share of the responsibility.
“We can’t keep going as the center for the state’s homelessness crisis,” she said, “and have cities and counties send their residents here because they are not doing enough to support them.”
Mendenhall emphasized the city’s efforts to install 600 winter shelter beds, as well as starting construction on the city’s tiny home village. She also said the city is starting to add 777 supportive permanent housing units, and she recently announced the downtown location for a sanctioned camp that will be equipped with “pods” to give shelter to 50 people.
Those initiatives, Mendenhall said, may not be enough, but they help.
Valentine, who said he has experienced homelessness in his life, advocated sanctioned camping and banning abatements. “From there,” he added, “you’re going to take everybody and actually put people into long-term housing.”
The candidates also presented their ideas for what may help alleviate the problems of finding affordable housing in Salt Lake City.
Mendenhall said the city’s investment in affordable housing has gone up more than 400%, to $55 million, in the past 3½ years. That spending, she said, “has created 4,000 affordable units in the city, according to the federal head standards.” That includes those 777 permanently supportive housing units, which were created in partnership with the state.
Anderson argued that many of those projects are inactive.
“Take those hundreds of units that were promised to us by last April,” Anderson said. “And that’s how many people are on the streets today because of neglect and incompetence.”
Anderson said the city should move to build social housing — and he cited programs in such cities as Barcelona, Spain; Vienna; and Singapore.
“We build it and we can keep the rates down and take it out of the market,” Anderson said. “So rents aren’t going to keep increasing at these ridiculous market rates, that are driven by the developers that have been financed with millions by this administration.”
Mendenhall responded that the city leans into the fact that investment and housing creation are happening, and that developers are helping pay for the buildings.
With Anderson’s example of Vienna and other European cities, Mendenhall said, “they’ve been investing every single year since World War II — but what we’re doing in America is the South Bronx. … What he’s talking about is the projects. We are not going to do that. Mixed-income housing is the best way for us to leverage people into success.”
Anderson and Valentine both rejected that notion.
Valentine argued, “they actually have affordable housing in other parts of America. … Rent controls have been in New York for decades.”
Valentine said that while growth is inevitable, the city should balance historic preservation with new construction. He also argued that the city’s housing subsidies aren’t affordable to average residents.
“The Redevelopment Agency is not building housing for actual community members,” Valentine said. “They’re using it as a dollar store to clean housing costs up by subsidizing luxury housing. There are luxury apartments. There are million-dollar homes. There’s nothing in between.”
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.