Quickly and quietly, Salt Lake City added 39 new units of low-income housing at an old motel that will help keep people out of homelessness

(Tyler Cobb | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Capitol Motel in Salt Lake City on Friday March 30, 2018. The building was bought and is being renovated into transitional housing for people at risk of becoming homeless.

There was little fanfare when Salt Lake City landed dozens of new apartment units for residents making about minimum wage, an elusive and much-needed — if temporary — type of housing amid a statewide effort to pull people out of homelessness.

There was no news conference to unveil the apartments. No ribbon-cutting. No ceremony. To passers-by, the rundown Capitol Motel on State Street near 1700 South has changed little.

But inside, quiet work has taken place after a recent change in ownership that has already transformed the motel into a place of refuge for the more than two dozen people who quickly moved in. The smoke-stained walls have been covered with a coat of white paint. Old carpet was torn out and replaced. And the people staying inside no longer pay near-market-rate rent for what many used as a break from a night or a week on the street.

“It’s transitional housing at a very cheap cost,” said Jeff Baldwin, a manager working for HomeInn, which is operating the motel. “Get a clean shower, get a place to stay and get ready for work.

“That’s how they get a chance to save up some money and get back to life,” Baldwin said.

Early this year, the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City bought the motel and surrounding properties and contracted with HomeInn, which owns and operates two other transitional housing sites, including the Rio Grande Hotel downtown. The Capitol Motel is now temporarily home to about 31 people who have a place to live for up to one year. In 2020, the building will be replaced by mixed-income apartments and commercial space.

A man who recently moved in and gave only his first name — Dave — said he was on the brink of homelessness after his roommate cut down walls in their house and the roof caved in. He said he gets about $700 a month from disability, and his girlfriend gets about $1,000 a month. Together, they’re staying at the Capitol Motel, which now charges $480 a month for a studio room for couples, a steep discount from the previous ownership.

Before the Housing Authority bought the properties, which include a tattoo parlor and cobbler shop, motel rooms rented for a weekly rate of about $285, Baldwin said.

“Shockingly, shockingly high,” said Dan Nackerman, executive director of the housing authority. “They were charging weekly rates, usually all cash, and it varied from person to person. So we were glad to get them out of the loop.”

Pedestrians walking down State Street often turn their heads as they walk by, passing a new black gate and a security car that sits in the U-shaped parking lot. Some stop in and meet Baldwin. If they’re interested in renting, they check in at the Rio Grande Hotel downtown and return. They can stay for up to a year.

“It is great, actually. Any number [of units] that can come on that quickly is significant as far as I’m concerned,” said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition. “Especially if it’s well-managed. And I think they do manage very well.”

Soon, renters will have access through the security gate with a keycard. Visitors are welcome from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. for up to four hours a day. Baldwin says the rules are straightforward. “KISS,” he calls them: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

No smoking, public intoxication or drugs. No open flames. Renters are told any of their neighbors could be out of prison or jail on parole. According to the Housing Authority’s screening rules, they won’t rent to those who have been convicted of manufacturing meth or those permanently on the state’s sex offender registry.

Those rules work for Dave, who was waiting for someone to come check on his new living arrangement. He got to the Capitol Motel through the drug court, has been clean since September and says he looks forward to getting off probation in a few months from a conviction several years ago.

Current and future renters are considered some of the people most at risk for homelessness in the state: those with past criminal convictions that make it tough to get a job and low-income housing that’s already hard to come by.

“I’m not surprised at all that it filled up really quickly,” said Bill Tibbitts, associate director at Crossroads Urban Center. “There are so many people struggling to find a place to live right now.”

The city, state and county are working to spur more development of apartments that people making around minimum wage — or about 30 percent of the area median income — could afford.

There’s a dearth across Utah of that type of housing. Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake — which will host three new homeless shelters next year — are also among the short list of cities that have more than the statewide average of low-income housing. But they’re also in line to add more.

While HomeInn manages the transitional housing units at the Capitol Motel, the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City is working through the complicated task of shoring up financing to build a larger, 108-unit apartment complex at the site. Two-thirds of the new apartments would be rent-restricted for those making very low income, and one-third would have no income restrictions.

Nackerman said he expected construction on the new complex to be completed by May 2020, and others welcome what the city considers part of revitalizing that area of State Street.

“It will be a step up,” said John Montgomery, chief lending officer with the Rocky Mountain Community Reinvestment Corp., which provides low-interest loans that help build affordable-housing projects. “It will be a few more rooms that are a step out of that shelter for people who are stable enough, even if they have some addiction to work through.”