Candidates for Salt Lake City mayor outline plans to address affordable housing crunch

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Eco Box Fabricators, based in Salt Lake City, hopes to make affordable housing units out of discarded shipping containers. This Jan. 15 file photo shows Tyler Marberger working on the project.

With a 25-year plan to boost housing accessibility and a $40 million investment in affordable units over the past three years, Salt Lake City is arguably doing more than any other Utah municipality to tackle what some have labeled a “crisis.”

Yet even as new buildings pop up across the city, the issue remains one of the most pressing facing the city’s next mayor — and many of the eight candidates vying for the position say they would do more, if elected, to address it.

Several pointed to the regulatory burdens developers face as a possible area for change and advocated for looking at creative amendments to other city requirements as a way to build more affordable housing.

“We need to relook at our zoning to include some builders that didn’t include any parking because the folks living there agreed to not own an automobile,” said David Ibarra, a businessman who advocates for a holistic approach to the issue. “And then [we need to] make our city walkable with our bikes, our scooters.

Ibarra noted in a recent interview that each parking spot in a development can add hundreds of dollars to a project. That’s why he’s advocating for an elimination of parking requirements in some housing plans.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla also said she would work to reduce “red tape” with good business partners in an effort to increase affordable units — but high-density development is a burden she believes should be shared across the city.

“It just can’t be in certain sections,” she said. “Of course, it has to fit with communities, right? For example Harvard-Yale area, those homes already have a taste. I mean, the uniqueness of those communities need to be kept and preserved. … But Salt Lake City should be open for everyone — not only for people with specific income brackets.”

Housing advocates with Salt Lake City have estimated there’s a gap of at least 7,500 apartments that are affordable to renters making $20,000 or less. Meanwhile, rent in Salt Lake County jumped from an average of $720 a month in 2010 to $1,072 last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s midyear 2018 Apartment Market Report.

Salt Lake City officials have taken steps to address the shortage, including loosening rules on so-called mother-in-law apartments, also known as ADUs (accessory dwelling units). The City Council also is considering expanding areas that permit single-room occupancy units, which they hope would help alleviate rental costs for cash-strapped residents.

Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall touted her role in those and other efforts in recent years, and also in working to cobble together $21 million for affordable housing through the city’s Redevelopment Agency — work she said she would build upon, if elected mayor.

“I would continue to work in collaboration with the housing advocates and developers of the city so that we can really address the geographic-inequity issues around housing access and unfair eviction practices and a greater opportunity for all housing types, from college to senior age to families that need to access affordable housing in our city,” Mendenhall said in a recent interview.

David Garbett, an environmental lawyer and the former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition, said the city isn’t keeping up with the affordable housing plan it passed in 2017.

If elected, he said, he would start by implementing that blueprint, which included several policy prescriptions candidates are calling for in this race, like fast-tracking permits for developers building affordable units and reducing parking requirements.

“The city needs to explore more options, particularly in ways to team up with developers using land that the city owns already,” said Garbett, whose father owns Garbett Homes. “Possibly also exploring helping residents build ADUs in exchange for providing housing for low-income residents.”

Former Sen. Jim Dabakis said he wants to look at “big things” the city could do on affordable housing and proposed a bigger-picture fix to the issue through collaboration with state leaders.

“Give me a billion dollars [from the Legislature],” he said. “Have them bond instead of bonding for fossil fuels. And I think this is a language I can talk to them because they're real estate guys. ‘Hey guys, you know, if our share is $100 million or $150 million or $200 million, we can leverage that out with developers so that a little bit of money goes to a lot of units, most of them at the market price. But we can get that 15% to 20% and affordable.’ Because the more houses or the more units that come along even at market price, the better.”

Former City Councilman Stan Penfold, who has run his campaign neighborhood by neighborhood, advocated for a different approach, one that would focus on the needs of individual residents.

“There’s a severe lack of available first-time options for buyers,” he said. “And I think the city needs to look at some programs that help first-time homebuyers get into homes that they can afford so they can live in the city.”

The City Council recently put $100,000 toward helping police, firefighters, nurses and teachers buy homes, and Penfold said he would look to expand on those types of programs as mayor.

Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, advocated for a better definition of affordable housing and stronger private management contracts, while Rainer Huck, a retired electrical engineer and ATV activist, echoed statements about the high prices of building and the “overregulation and taxation by the city” on developers.

“Just by reforming the regulatory environment,” he said, “we could cut the cost of housing quite a bit.”