Salt Lake City has not had leadership that “intentionally cares about the west side," state Sen. Luz Escamilla argued during a mayoral debate Monday.
But if elected mayor next month, the Rose Park resident says she would make west-side equity a hallmark of her administration and would seek to acknowledge inequities and boost property values there by promoting a mix of housing types and bringing “good investment to the area.”
“We have to be intentional in addressing disparities in the west side in everything we’re doing,” she said. “That has never been addressed and it’s been under the current leadership.”
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, in turn, expressed a commitment to the west side and sought to dispel criticisms that the city hasn’t done enough to help the area. The candidate, who has touted her experience in City Hall throughout the race, also argued that her opponent lacked specificity in her vision for how to accomplish their shared goal.
“We have to be able to unpack what is systemic, what is historic and what is biased but not intentionally perpetuated by a single person in City Hall today,” she said. “I think everyone in City Hall today wants to do better for the west side. It’s harder to know how.”
Mendenhall pointed to the “actual results” she’s achieved for the west side of Salt Lake City, including an “incredible amount of reinvestment” the city has promoted in the 9-Line redevelopment project area on 900 South, a west-side master plan and through improved transit access to the west side.
“You guys are a little bit late and it’s not fair to those communities,” said Escamilla who, if elected, would become the first mayor of color and the first to live west of Interstate 15. “I live there, so I can tell you: We don’t feel like we’ve been represented well by Salt Lake City.”
Their comments came during a debate moderated by The Salt Lake Tribune’s editor, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, and FOX 13 reporter Ben Winslow, and in the midst of a race for city mayor that has focused more than past ones on creating equity with the capital’s neglected communities.
Both candidates have expressed a commitment to ensuring affordable housing solutions like single-room occupancy units are not consigned solely to the west side. Mendenhall has proposed planting 1,000 new trees on the west side under each year of her administration, if elected; Escamilla has promised to bring “navigators” to City Hall to help uncertain residents get the resources they need.
“I’m ready to take action for a change, councilwoman, in the west side," Escamilla concluded during the debate.
“I would love to hear how you’re actually going to do it," Mendenhall shot back.
During the hourlong debate at the downtown Salt Lake City library, the candidates also addressed capacity concerns within the new system for delivering homeless services in Salt Lake City following news, first reported by The Tribune, that all the beds for homeless women within the new homeless resource centers are already full with winter fast approaching.
Providers have seen a deficit of up to 30 beds for women over the past week or so, and women have been sleeping in overflow emergency shelter as a result. The problem could be greater for homeless men; if the client population remains at current levels, the capacity shortfall for males could total 40 beds when The Road Home’s downtown shelter shuts down in November, based on estimates of the number of men currently in the system.
Mendenhall, who has long raised concerns about capacity within the new system, which has a gap in total capacity of about 400, said the strain on the system raises questions about whether the state should close the downtown emergency shelter in the Rio Grande neighborhood as planned later this year.
“When the state talks about the closure of The Road Home and achieving certain benchmarks in order for that closure to happen, hearing the news that we’ve heard in the last 24 hours tells me that we may not be able to meet those benchmarks,” Mendenhall said. “If we are not going to be able to provide adequate emergency shelter, maybe The Road Home shouldn’t be closing this fall.”
Nate McDonald, a spokesman with the state Department of Workforce Services, which is helping coordinate the transition to a new system for homeless services, told The Salt Lake Tribune in a message Monday night that the downtown shelter is planned to close 30 days after the occupancy agreement is given for the men’s resource center scheduled to open next month in South Salt Lake.
He did not respond to an immediate question about whether it was possible to keep the main shelter open in light of space concerns.
Escamilla said she does not think The Road Home’s downtown shelter should stay open, citing an audit that revealed widespread drug use and other problems there. To address the problem, she argued that service providers need to work to move women and other people experiencing homelessness into permanent supportive housing units to free up space.
“We already are at capacity and we haven’t even opened the new centers immediately,” she said. “To me it’s clear [we need emergency shelter], but it’s not The Road Home."
Ballots were mailed to Salt Lake City residents Monday and should be arriving in mailboxes throughout the week, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said Monday. Residents now have a chance to weigh in on who should lead the city forward for the next four years. The general election is Nov. 5.