As Salt Lake City battles a housing crisis, rising homelessness, mass evictions and a pandemic that’s exacerbating the divide between the affluent and those struggling to get by, a local renters advocacy group has decided it has had enough. It’s calling on Redevelopment Agency Director Danny Walz to resign.
Wasatch Tenants United issued a news release Monday claiming that the RDA has invested millions in taxpayer funds not to address the city’s dire lack of affordable housing, but to subsidize the construction of new luxury apartments. That has caused inflated housing prices for all, further pinching renters and working people. The last straw for the group, according to organizer Ian Decker, was the eviction of dozens of downtown Salt Lake City residents last week when the Annex and Carlton Hotel were sold off to a Chicago developer.
“We didn’t start as a protest group. We started as a group to help people move when they get evicted,” Decker said. “We can’t prioritize that sort of work when the city is creating a bigger problem for people. It’s almost impossible to keep up.”
Rose Park Brown Berets, Utah Against Police Brutality, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and four other local activist organizations co-signed the news release.
On Saturday, Wasatch Tenants United is hosting a rally against mass evictions, where it will repeat its demand for Walz to step down.
“What we know firsthand is that the current course of redevelopment has already hurt the average working person in this city profoundly, and we can see that things are only likely to get worse if nothing is done,” the group wrote on a Facebook event page for the demonstration.
Walz countered that the RDA provides subsidies and incentives for housing projects that “run the gamut.”
“The projects in which we take part are designated to be affordable to a variety of household income levels, including low, very-low, and extremely low incomes, and including seniors or people with disabilities on fixed incomes, or those experiencing homelessness,” Walz wrote in an email.
Recent projects include Pamela’s Place, which provides 100 units for people previously experiencing homelessness and Capitol Home Apartments, which has 62 units for households earning 25% to 50% of the city’s median income, Walz said.
“The RDA also leases its property at a substantial subsidy to the Rio Grande Hotel, which provides [rooms] to extremely low-income residents,” Walz said.
In 2020 alone, the RDA allocated nearly $5.5 million to affordable housing projects, which resulted in 305 affordable units targeting various income levels.
“It’s important to note that the more deeply affordable the unit, the more subsidization-per-unit required,” Walz said, adding that if the city had funded only deeply affordable housing, it would not be able to provide as many units overall to those in need.
Walz also said the city played no role in recent mass evictions. In fact, the RDA has deferred loans, waived rent and helped tenants secure federal grants during the pandemic.
“The state, through a comprehensive state law, regulates evictions, not the city,” Walz wrote. “State law also explicitly prohibits municipalities from passing any rent control ordinance.”
Decker acknowledged the city has taken steps to create low-income housing for those in need, but said the city has fallen far short of what’s needed.
He pointed to a 2020 Affordable Housing Report from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which found Salt Lake County has an available and affordable housing gap of 23,000 very low-income rental units and 22,000 extremely low-income units.
The report also notes that, adjusted for inflation, Utahns’ income grew by .31% per year from 2009 to 2016, but rent rates grew by 1.03% each year.
“Of particular note is the extent to which housing security has become directly dependent on price fluctuations driven by investment property, which excludes lower-income households from the housing market,” the report says.
Developers tend to buy up properties and build or renovate them to high-income standards to maximize the value of their land.
“While these newly built and rehabilitated structures increase the number of housing units relative to demand, which increase vacancy rates, they are not necessarily primary places of residence, but vehicles for wealth storage,” according to the Affordable Housing Report.
(The chart above shows the surge in Utah’s real estate earnings in recent years. U.S. recessions are shaded in gray.)
That, Decker said, is where the city and RDA can play a role in mass evictions.
“When you give a developer a tax credit, or loan, it encourages them to buy more property” and drive up housing prices for everyone else, Decker said.
The resulting inflation leaves a deficit in affordable options, as seen with the Annex and Carlton Hotel evictions, which were first reported by KUTV.
“Through the RDA, this absolutely is being encouraged,” Decker said. “Their policies are actively harming working people.”
But Walz’s boss, Mayor Erin Mendenhall, is sticking by the RDA director.
“Since Danny Walz’s appointment as RDA director, the RDA has not funded any all-market rate or luxury apartment projects,” Mendenhall said in a written statement.
Still, the mayor acknowledged the city’s need to improve access to stable, affordable housing.
“This is a citywide priority and it’s a process the RDA has and will continue to play an integral role in helping us achieve while Utah’s growing economy and population create ongoing pressure on our housing stock and affordability,” Mendenhall said.
City Council Member Ana Valdemoros, who also serves as chair of the RDA board of directors, also offered words of support for Walz.
“I feel like the RDA has been focused on affordable housing for many years now,” Valdemoros said. “We lead the pack in the state in trying to solve the affordable housing [problem] in Salt Lake City and as well as a statewide issue.”
The Wasatch Tenants United rally against mass evictions starts at 2 p.m. Saturday at the west entrance of Salt Lake City Hall. For more information and updates, visit the group’s Instagram account or Facebook event page.
Correction: Feb. 10, 11:50 a.m. A previous version of this story included a photo of an apartment building being constructed in Salt Lake City. The project is not an RDA subsidized development.