Escamilla, Mendenhall express support for spreading micro-apartments across Salt Lake City

The two candidates running for Salt Lake City mayor vowed Saturday to make affordable housing a priority if elected and expressed support for single-room occupancy units as one tool to alleviate rising rental rates.

But they said the burden of those dorm-style units and of other affordable-housing solutions need to be shouldered across the city — not centralized only in westside communities.

“It’s not going to be an easy task,” state Sen. Luz Escamilla said.

Escamilla and her opponent, City Councilor Erin Mendenhall, debated for 45 minutes at the Crossroads Urban Center’s 16th annual Poverty Summit at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark downtown.

The Salt Lake City Council is currently considering an ordinance that would dramatically expand the number of zoning districts within city limits where single-room occupancy units could be constructed. But the last iteration of that policy would continue to bar them from a wide range of residential areas, including ones in Salt Lake City’s foothills; those designated for single- and two-family dwellings; and in areas zoned for neighborhood commercial, community shopping and small business districts.

As a result, the typically one-bedroom dwellings with a shared bathroom or kitchen would largely crop up on North Temple and in the State Street corridor of the city, said Mendenhall, who lives in the 9th and 9th neighborhood.

“The reasoning for that is in one part proximity to transit, but that’s not the only place that’s close to transit in the city,” she said. “I have a problem with that. Our existing zoning, intentionally or not — I hope not intentionally — has racist and other overtones that are accidentally perpetuated when we continue to rely on old zoning as future housing needs. That is not geographic equity.”

Mendenhall said she and the council have directed the city’s planning commission to bring back a new proposal that is better balanced across the city.

But Escamilla said she expects community dynamics around broadening single-room occupancy to east side communities — many of which are close to the city’s high-frequency transit routes — will be one of the biggest challenges to successful implementation.

“This is going to require that the good councilwoman and I work together when I’m the mayor and make this happen,” she joked.

SROs are seen as a potential piece of the city’s efforts to address the state’s affordable housing crunch because they are a less expensive form of housing to build, with smaller rooms and shared amenities. Studies indicate that they are often among the lowest-cost options for the elderly, people with disabilities and working poor.

But as some residents are concerned about the impact the residences could have on existing neighborhoods, including the possibility of additional crime, Escamilla argued the best way to ensure their success is to have case management and other services available to those who live in them — particularly for people exiting homelessness.

“If we’re going to invest, if we’re going to pick these battles of doing this, which is critical, and if we’re saying east, west, north, south and stop gentrification, and [we’re] focusing on all zones, especially the ones with high frequency transit, we are going to have to do this with wraparound services,” she said.

Salt Lake City had nearly 800 SROs in the early 1980s compared with just 50 such units today, all of which are located at the Rio Grande Hotel at 428 W. 300 South, adjacent to Pioneer Park.

While the Poverty Summit and debate Saturday focused largely on affordable housing and homelessness, both candidates also addressed what they see as a general lack of engagement with the west side as one of the major challenges facing the next mayor of Salt Lake City.

“Residents are correct that City Hall does not engage the same with the west side of our community as it does with the east side,” Mendenhall said. “Socioeconomic access to even being able to show up at public meetings is a problem, and it’s part of the reason we have different conversations and different representation. That’s unacceptable.”

Escamilla vowed to work toward building better trust between west side residents and city officials by leveraging relationships with existing community organizations and through work with the community councils. She also proposed the creation of a program where “navigators” would be present in City Hall to help underserved residents get the help they need.

The candidate also pointed to her past advocacy on behalf of underrepresented groups and relationships with west side residents as assets in addressing those problems.

“Representation does matter,” said Escamilla, who if elected in November would become the city’s first ethnic minority mayor. “Communities are very afraid of government and what it means to communicate with government.”

To build better relationships with the west side, Mendenhall said she would bring the work of city government to neighborhoods rather than expect residents to go to City Hall. She also promised to partner with city councilors, if elected, to hold a town hall each year in every district in the city.

“We need the mayor and the Cabinet of the mayor going out into the community listening, being in the locations,” she said. “That’s something we haven’t had with our past mayors and something I will bring to this conversation.”

Mendenhall is currently serving her second term on the City Council, and she has touted her experience in city government as a much-needed value add to City Hall, which has been run by former legislators in past years.

“Community is where it’s at — and that’s where I’ve been for the last six years,” she added, pointing to her endorsements from a number of community councilors in her district as proof that she knows how to engage residents.

The debate Saturday was one of the first since a primary election earlier this month booted long-presumed frontrunner Jim Dabakis out of the race. Both Mendenhall and Escamilla have promised clean campaigns, focused on the issues, and the debate Saturday largely reflected that goal.

The November election guarantees the city its third female mayor and marks the first time the capital city has seen a mayoral election featuring two female candidates.