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Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall calls for unity, innovation: ‘Back to normal’ not good enough

In her State of the City address, the mayor also shared plans for housing, homelessness and racial equity for her second year in office.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall delivers the State of the City address from the City Council Chambers in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.

As Salt Lake City begins the slow process of emerging from the pandemic and other tribulations of the past year, Mayor Erin Mendenhall doesn’t want to simply “return to the way things were before.”

The mayor gave her second State of the City address Tuesday evening, presenting a vision of a more equitable and inclusive future for city residents. Mendenhall also intends to resume her goals from last year to lead in environmental sustainability, inclusive opportunities for communities and growth that benefits all.

“The pre-COVID status quo was not good for everyone. It wasn’t just for everyone, it wasn’t safe for everyone and it wasn’t fair for everyone,” Mendenhall said. “Instead of Salt Lake City getting back to normal and re-creating what once was, we are seizing this opportunity and striving to make our city better.”

Many of the mayor’s goals from her first State of the City address, delivered shortly after she took office in January 2020, were put on the back burner as the city administration devoted much of its energy to addressing a series of crises: the coronavirus pandemic, a damaging earthquake, racial justice demonstrations that at times became violent, and a hurricane-force windstorm.

“This last year brought more challenges than perhaps any year in our city’s history, but as I’ll share with you tonight, I believe it also created the space for positive, seismic changes for the good of all our people,” Mendenhall said.

During her speech Tuesday night, held virtually at City Hall, Mendenhall thanked the City Council and city workers for adapting and rising to the many crises the city faced.

She also invited city residents to shift “into a mindset of purpose” in 2021.

“Together we can work to create our community’s future of opportunity, equity and strength,” Mendenhall said. “I know it’s possible, more than ever, because of what I have seen you, and our team at Salt Lake City, move and achieve over the last year.”

The mayor’s progress so far

Ahead of Tuesday’s event, Mendenhall’s office released a “Salt Lake City Annual Progress Report Card” that assesses the administration’s goals over the past year.

“They do not reflect all the work done by Salt Lake City through the year, including response to the many unplanned events,” according to a news release about the report card.

Among the mayor’s achievements in the self-assessment are exploring zoning modifications to allow more affordable housing, improved public transit ridership, a joint resolution with the City Council to electrify the city’s transportation, and planting 1,000 trees in the city’s west side.

Several of the mayor’s goals had to be extended into 2021, however, as the city tackled other crises.

Mendenhall acknowledged many of the issues that faced the city pre-pandemic remain pressing.

“The pandemic didn’t mean our housing problems went away, just as the earthquakes didn’t mean our air-quality problems disappeared,” she said.

Of the mayor’s 11 first-year environment goals, for example, six were delayed and three are “in process.”

Other items that remain on the to-do list include modeling transportation and pollution impacts from the inland port, holding a roundtable with west side businesses, and establishing a regular public forum for people experiencing homelessness.

Affordable housing

To address the city’s affordable housing problems, Mendenhall said she plans to present a “renter’s choice ordinance” to the City Council, which will address the barriers security deposits can create for some renters.

The mayor said she also intends to close loopholes in the housing loss mitigation fund ordinance so it better preserves affordable housing units lost to redevelopment projects.

Mendenhall also said she plans to study how the “rush for new development” in Salt Lake City is causing gentrification and pricing residents out of their neighborhoods.

“As we work to address the city’s housing crisis, we’re also going to take a deep dive into this issue,” Mendenhall said. “The project will inform our work to protect our historic communities and neighborhoods, and preserve affordable housing and active commercial spaces.”

Innovation and technology

The mayor announced formation of an “Innovation Department” tasked with streamlining city business and transparency, as well as building out a system to improve digital access and equity. The new department will be finalized in February.

Mendenhall will continue an initiative to attract more high-tech businesses to Salt Lake City as well.

“Tech Lake City, as we’ve come to call it, will continue to be a driving force for my administration, and this year, we will continue work on a collaborative roadmap that harnesses the growth and economic potential that exists here,” Mendenhall said, adding that she would announce next steps “soon.”

Air quality

As commuters worked from home during widespread business closures, Mendenhall said the pandemic proved there are steps the city can take right away to making a meaningful improvement with air pollution. The mayor said she plans to introduce a hybrid work-from-home model for city departments.

The mayor also plans to propose an ordinance to the City Council requiring all city-funded buildings to be zero-emissions by 2023.

“A housing development, a hotel, a mixed-use project that receives even a dime of [city Redevelopment Agency] money will have to be emission-free,” Mendenhall said.

The city will evaluate its fleet as well, she added, to determine whether efficiency goals made a difference in the city’s air quality. In addition, Mendenhall’s administration will form a Sustainable Infrastructure Steering Committee “to remove barriers to green infrastructure.”

Racial equity

Even with the pandemic and natural disasters, Mendenhall said one of the biggest challenges the city and nation faced last year was its reckoning with generations of racial inequality.

“Although addressing the geographic, racial, and economic inequities in our city has been a top priority of this government since day one of my administration, the crises of 2020 laid bare some of the stunning gaps that have always been there and added new urgency to the work of closing them,” Mendenhall said.

The mayor said she will require all departments to consider equity when writing their budgets for the coming year. City departments will focus on equitable recruiting and hiring as well. The city will also continue its commitment to police reform, including adopting recommendations from the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing.

“Our efforts to build a more just police department do not conflict with our efforts to address rising crime rates,” she said. “That is a false choice, and I will not let our work toward either be derailed by simplistic political rhetoric.”

Homelessness

The mayor noted that providing resources to unsheltered people continues to be one of the most difficult and immediate challenges facing the city.

The Community Commitment Program, formed last fall to clean neighborhoods and partner with homeless service agencies to provide outreach to encampments, will become permanent, Mendenhall said. By the end of 2020, the program had provided more than 120 people with temporary housing and connected 40 others to services.

But the mayor called on Utah’s state government and other cities to step up as well, noting that homelessness is a statewide humanitarian crisis.

“We also need to come back together as a community and reset the rhetoric that has grown more and more extreme as the pandemic has worsened,” Mendenhall said.

Healing divides

Outcry about encampment cleanups and the “reflex to demonize” other people in general, the mayor said, was largely informed by “doomscrolling” and “an 8-second clip on Tik-Tok or a photo on Instagram” leading people to “come to the worst possible conclusion.”

“People feel strongly — I get it. So do I,” Mendenhall said. “If there were an easy solution, we’d have done it years ago, decades ago. The public servants from the city, the county, and the nonprofits who try to help the unsheltered do so because we care deeply.”

In her closing remarks, the mayor urged people to heal their divides, open their minds and serve one another, reminding residents that “we’re on the same team.”

“The pandemic will end and so must our isolation. So must our anger,” Mendenhall said.

“Today it is our responsibility to move forward — to honor the memories of those we’ve lost by building a city that would make them proud.”

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