George Chapman: SLC plan for low-income housing has some problems

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Overniter Motel at 1500 west North Temple in Salt Lake City Monday October 23, 2017. Salt Lake City's Redevelopment Agency has proposed a $4 million loan to buy the and replace it with a development that includes affordable housing, part of a broader plan to create more than 750 affordable units using $22 million set aside by the City Council.

Tuesday there will be a public hearing on a proposal by Salt Lake City to encourage Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residences throughout the city. Although the proposed ordinance does not allow them in single family zoned areas, almost all other areas, including adjacent areas, will be allowed to have SROs.

SROs are small living units that function like dorms with shared bathrooms with one “water closet” (toilet) for 10 residents and one shower or bath for eight residents. SRO rooms can have a private kitchen or a private bathroom but not both. The rent can be weekly and eviction is easier than with regular apartments. There is a resident manager and video surveillance to decrease and discourage criminal activity.

SROs were added to the City’s Housing Plan (Growing SLC) to “increase housing options, promote affordability, and build more equitable and fair housing.” SROs have been allowed in some areas with TRAX, such as North Temple and 400 South — but none have been built. It is hoped that the new proposal will encourage SROs and housing options for low-income citizens.

Many feel that SROs can easily become crime magnets that can become as bad as the motels along State Street and North Temple. The Salt Lake City Police Department has not been able to stop the constant criminal activity along those corridors that are centered around those low-cost motels. Low-income housing has had a history of the housing going downhill. Some claim that they can become mini Cabrini Greens.

Salt Lake City has recognized this issue and has a policy of mixed income. There is even a group in Salt Lake City that tries to encourage relationships between higher socioeconomic individuals and low-income or homeless people, to provide support for actions that will result in moving into higher-income situations. Salt Lake City insists that SROs will be market rate and, therefore, mixed income. But the reality is that they are probably going to all be low-income. Low-income housing can result in residents enabling or ignoring criminal behavior. Despite efforts to stop criminal activity and intimidating behavior in low-cost housing, it still is a problem, even with security cameras and on-site managers.

The best example of housing similar to SROs are the college dorms. Many believe that SROs like the college dorms would be a great housing solution. But dorms on campus are totally different than SROs. College dorms have more control and the students have tasks and studies that are not similar to potential residents of SROs.

The proposal requires mixed use in the downtown areas to continue, which will have ground floor retail or offices that encourage walkability. But mixed use (and mixed income) is not required in other areas. Sugar House residents have been fighting to require ground floor retail on all new development in Sugar House to ensure walkability, without much success. The result is many new buildings with ground floor apartments (zombie buildings) which are essentially dead to public engagement. The newest project proposal (Sugar Alley – across the Street from Whole Foods on Highland) does finally put in retail on the ground floor. But the SRO proposal does not require it, which will hurt walkability.

Salt Lake City should encourage higher-density, mixed-use and mixed-income development and micro units along commercial corridors that have high frequency (15 minutes) bus transit, such as State Street. The State Street area, according to the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, has the best potential for increasing housing.

Salt Lake City can and should sell the vacant property that the city owns that has been vacant for decades. That would provide funds to encourage higher density development of State Street (and get rid of the crime magnet motels).

The City Council will have the public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 400 South State Street. The Council provides validation for parking under the Library. You can also email the individual council members (on the left) or email city.council.liaisons@slcgov.com with your comments.

George Chapman

George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City and writes a blog at georgechapman.net.