‘An absolute falsehood’: Rocky Anderson swipes at Erin Mendenhall on housing record in SLC mayoral debate

Mendenhall fired back at Anderson’s criticism, saying “we deserve to have the facts, and he’s twisting things again for you here.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Michael Valentine and former Mayor Rocky Anderson face off in a debate on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson lambasted Mayor Erin Mendenhall on a debate stage Wednesday night, criticizing her administration’s record on deeply affordable housing creation and calling her recent assertions that there were some 300 additional units in the pipeline “an absolute falsehood.”

“It’s important that our mayor be straight with the people of the city, especially about matters of life and death and quality of life for everybody,” Anderson — who has made homelessness the center of his campaign — said during an hourlong debate co-sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune, KUER and PBS Utah.

In her reelection campaign, Mendenhall has touted her administration’s work investing in 777 permanent supportive units in a city that is facing homelessness and housing crises.

During the debate, moderated by Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor Lauren Gustus, Mendenhall said her administration had invested in that many units, but that number decreased by about 200 after the developer of Ville 1659 abandoned his proposal to renovate the shuttered Ramada at 1659 W. North Temple.

Mendenhall fired back at Anderson’s criticism, saying “we deserve to have the facts, and he’s twisting things again for you here.” The mayor said the developer told the city he could get the job done and that she toured the site over the summer while it was under construction.

“Salt Lake City has had developers switch out and not do what they said they would do many times in the past,” she said, “which is why we always get that money back.”

In July, the city shut down work on the project after officials found the developer making improvements to the property without a permit. The developer had not responded to requests for information needed to obtain a permit since January but became responsive to those requests after work on the project was halted, a city administrator has said.

Mendenhall took credit for investing in Ville 1659 as recently as Sept. 28, when she said at a candidate forum that her administration had helped get 434 permanent supportive units on line and had 300 more “in the pipeline.” Those 300 units included the apartments at Ville 1659 and units at a facility for medically vulnerable Utahns that the Sandy City Council approved this week.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson speaks during a debate with Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Michael Valentine on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

After Wednesday’s debate, the mayor said city officials had only “heard rumors” about the failure of the development over the past couple of weeks but were not aware of its abandonment until about the time The Tribune reported that the project was dead. That story published Tuesday.

“We’re not involved, obviously, in the abandonment of that contract,” she told reporters. “It’s not Salt Lake City who’s buying him [the developer] out.”

A city administrator discussed the project’s failure with The Tribune shortly before the Sept. 28 forum, saying officials were in the process of terminating a funding agreement with the developer to recoup the public investment. The developer said he decided to sell his rights to lease the site more than a month ago.

When asked by reporters to clarify when she first heard the project had been abandoned, Mendenhall said, “About a week ago.”

During an interview Thursday morning, the mayor said Salt Lake City officially severed ties with the developer after The Tribune first published he was under contract to sell his rights to the site. He had not told the city he was selling his rights to the property, the mayor said.

Making Utah’s capital more affordable for young people?

Mendenhall and Anderson’s squabble over housing didn’t stop with questions about her record on permanent supportive housing creation. Both candidates also sparred over how they would make Utah’s capital more affordable to young people.

Anderson said he wants the city to build and fully control its own housing, making it immune to shifts in the market.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Valentine speaks during a debate with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and former Mayor Rocky Anderson on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Mendenhall, meanwhile, said Anderson’s proposal would be far more costly than investing in housing developments that are already underway. The first-term mayor said her administration has invested more in affordable housing — which includes deeply affordable housing — than all other mayoral administrations combined.

First-time candidate Michael Valentine, an activist and small-business owner, said the city’s Redevelopment Agency is subsidizing luxury housing and calling it affordable housing when, in reality, it’s not.

“What this is doing is artificially raising prices, increasing unaffordability, driving people into homelessness and driving people out of the city through gentrification,” he said. “What we need to do is actually use public money for the community, not for real estate investors and developers.”

Mendenhall on offense

Mendenhall didn’t just take fire from her competitors Wednesday night — she dished out her own flavor of criticism, attacking Anderson’s brash style of governing as unproductive.

“The ability to be open and accessible,” she said, “is really hard when you’re a combative person and you’re burning bridges all over the place.”

Mendenhall said she knows the relationships that are required to govern from City Hall, how to disagree productively and can work with state lawmakers to deliver results in Utah’s capital.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks during a debate with Michael Valentine and former Mayor Rocky Anderson on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Anderson said the notion that he doesn’t get along with legislators is “absurd,” adding that he has “a long, proud record of working with people of all kinds and making a real positive difference.”

Keeping the Jazz

Asked how she would keep the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, Mendenhall said her administration is “actively engaged” with team owner Ryan Smith’s Smith Entertainment Group to work on potentially giving a new National Hockey League team a home downtown as Smith pursues a franchise.

She pointed to shifting demands from those who attend professional sporting events, saying it is no longer just about experiencing a game for fans.

“People want to be able to have a good time, be out there with their kids, go out for a restaurant before and maybe go to a bar after, ride your bike home, and then be able to get up in the morning and take that path back into the downtown,” she said. “It invigorates not only the downtown but the entire state, and we want this. We’re working hard on this and I think it’s very possible for us.”

Anderson accused the mayor of being “blind to what’s really happening” when fans attend events downtown, adding that some avoid going to the area because it has become degraded with no enforcement from police.

The former mayor said Utah’s capital may have been able to keep minor league baseball’s Salt Lake Bees from leaving for the suburbs if the experience in the Ballpark neighborhood had not been so “devastatingly awful.”

“No one is standing up here saying that we don’t need more shelter and we don’t need more housing,” the mayor responded. “We’re all in agreement about that. But how it gets done is what this race is about. Can we get the partnerships to actually solve the problems and not do it by ourselves?”