This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Nearly a year after learning that shocking numbers of longtime Salt Lake City residents face a loss of housing due to rapid development and escalating rental costs, city leaders have an intricate plan for stemming the trend.
Few aspects of city housing policy would be untouched by passage of Thriving in Place, the name given to a cluster of 22 strategies that officials hope will ease widespread patterns of gentrification wiping out affordable neighborhoods citywide and driving countless renters to the financial edge.
The blueprint — now nearing final adoption — centers on creating new assistance for struggling lower-income renters and on preserving existing homes across the city, while also promoting new affordable housing construction.
But the two-year roadmap also reaches into new approaches for using city land for housing through community trusts, revamping landlord training and stepped-up lobbying for renter-friendly reforms on Utah’s Capitol Hill.
Thriving in Place is set for its first major public hearing before the Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday, culminating almost two years of study, meetings and public input from more than 2,500 residents.
Much of that outreach has focused on new ways of listening to folks worst hit by displacement, particularly west side residents, people of color, seniors, students and disadvantaged families who have offered their difficult stories in gatherings often conducted under pandemic duress.
The resulting roadmap of interlocking policy changes, according to Mayor Erin Mendenhall, is “not a proposal that came out of City Hall.
“This is a proposal created with the communities who are experiencing the displacement and gentrification that the 22 strategies end up directly addressing,” the mayor said.
Initial phases of Thriving in Place, released in summer of 2022, found among other things that “generational Salt Lakers who have helped build this place that is now so very popular to locate in are being displaced,” Mendenhall said.
“We’re losing them. We’re losing families. That’s all an incredibly compelling reason to work not only on creating this plan,” she said, “but to have them help shape it.”
After the shock, the proposed solutions
City Council members, too, acknowledged being shocked by widespread displacement patterns revealed last summer in initial analysis by the city’s Thriving in Place consultants, Community Planning Collaborative, (formerly known as Baird+Driskell Community Planning) along with experts from the Urban Displacement Project), both based in Berkeley, Calif.
Utah’s capital is now majority renter, according to the findings, and upward of half of them are severely cost-burdened, spending as much as half or more of their incomes on housing costs.
Displacement is more widespread than many expected, placing Salt Lake City among cities worldwide most stressed by gentrification, consultants found. Residents being pinched can no longer find affordable neighborhoods anywhere on the Wasatch Front to land.
Many experts and elected officials also see a direct link between spiraling rents, lagging incomes and resulting gentrification patterns and the dire numbers of residents ending up unsheltered and forced to live on the streets.
“It was staggering for all of us and really a call to action on what we knew was happening in Salt Lake but also in the region,” said Angela Price, policy director for the city’s Community and Neighborhoods Department. The data, she said, is not unique to Utah’s capital city.
“It is the exact same from Brigham City all the way down to Provo,” Price said. “So while we are leading out on this, this is a statewide and a regional issue.”
That’s also given some on the City Council a sense of urgency in crafting and enacting Thriving in Place to begin stabilizing the city’s nearly 200,000 residents in their homes and slowing displacement.
“This is a big task,” said council member Darin Mano, “and we don’t have a lot of time to wait.”
Added council colleague Chris Wharton: “I feel like we’re already behind. What can we do right now?”
Helping tenants, protecting homes — and building more
While some of Thriving in Place is policy ready to enact or graft onto existing city ordinances, other major pieces of it chart paths and timelines for writing and adopting those complex strategies over the next two years and beyond.
The package under public scrutiny on Tuesday will be followed quickly by a related raft of new affordable housing incentives. Those are designed to entice lower-cost home construction in existing neighborhoods with new incentives on designs, added building heights and other zoning changes.
Each major piece of Thriving in Place is also likely to draw its own debate and budget items over the coming years, adding up to potentially millions in new spending— along with city campaigns to find new funding sources and community partners.
One of the plan’s centerpiece moves is tenant assistance, in many forms.
The policy package would create a pilot fund — estimated at about $200,000 to start — for helping income-qualified residents avoid eviction in the face of rent increases. That and the start of a tenant-assistance service center at City Hall have already been initially seeded by pandemic relief money.
In addition to gentrification trends, Mendenhall noted Thriving in Place had revealed that families “are having a great struggle affording childcare, transportation costs and household costs, coupled with inflation affecting food and daily needs.
“I don’t know that any plan that any city makes is a 100% solution for what it attempts to address,” she said. “But that is never a reason for us to not try.”
Price noted that a recent study in California found 82% of people experiencing homelessness said if they’d received $5,000 to $10,000 in their hour of need, they would not be homeless.
“That is a small drop in the bucket,” she said, “when we’re considering the trauma and the lifelong experience that somebody has even for a brief spell of homelessness.”
Thriving in Place also envisions a preference policy for displaced tenants, potentially giving them first dibs on affordable units built in the same neighborhoods they were forced to leave.
At the same time, it calls for a $1 million-to-$5 million upgrade in training for landlords under a revamped version of the city’s existing Good Landlord program, with a new focus on ways to reduce evictions.
The city would also put a heavy emphasis on helping tenants become property owners as a way of boosting their housing security. That would flow from as much as $5 million more poured into homebuyers assistance, ways of sharing home equity and expanding the city’s involvement in community land trusts to create repositories of land available for new housing.
Acquiring and rehabilitating older homes and apartments would also be a higher priority for the city, with additional millions potentially put toward that end through the city’s Redevelopment Agency.
Are there ways to make developers pay?
Thriving in Place also addresses the major and longstanding city priority of fixing its current approach to reducing housing loss in the face of new development, which most officials agree doesn’t work.
Even with the record spate of new apartment construction across the city, research confirms that the loss of existing dwellings to new development has only been a minor factor in displacement when compared to rising rents and stagnant incomes, affecting less than 1% of units from 2020 to 2022.
Thriving in Place envisions creating a new community-benefits approach to housing loss and contemplates requiring some developers to replace affordable homes they might tear down. The approach would be crafted, however, under relatively narrow parameters set by state laws protecting property rights.
Developers who would either require zoning changes, creation of planned developments or other city concessions to build their housing projects might, in turn, be required to pay relocation aid to tenants being displaced or to build similarly priced units on-site to replace the dwellings being razed.
Or they might also be required to pay a fee in lieu into a housing-loss mitigation fund for each dwelling they eliminate — cash that then would be used to help residents in a variety of ways.
But, under newly revised state laws, developers building their projects “by right” — without needing zoning changes from the city — couldn’t be bound by any of those requirements.
That’s one of several parts of Thriving in Place that also call for city officials to engage with state lawmakers, leaders in other cities and a series of other community partners to press for changes aimed at easing the plight of income-strapped renters.
Mendenhall said she was confident that with the city’s involvement since early 2022 in policy review by the state Commission on Housing Affordability, Salt Lake City can build a working community-benefits approach to improve housing stability and promote more deeply affordable housing.
“Because of our transparency and our sharing of our strategy, we’re not catching anyone off guard. We invite the state to work with us on developing a community-benefit policy, because we want this to last,” she said.
“This is not a political policy. This is about progress on housing that lasts.”