Briant Novinska-Lois: Ending housing discrimination in Salt Lake City would boost economic mobility

Community councils should not stand in the way of the proposed Affordable Housing Overlay.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Homes along the 1700 block of Harvard Avenue in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, March 18, 2014.

Salt Lake City may benefit if it began separating itself from a handful of local community councils.

To be clear, this isn’t a call to ban such councils. It’s a call to our elected officials to distance themselves from the protectionist, reactionary and callous interests of a monied few, who’ve strategically placed themselves in positions to yell louder and longer than other councils whose members are less capable of doing the same.

Lessening their apparent grip would crack open the door for the city to be able to substantively act on the significant demands for high-density, affordable housing, which would ultimately help amend injustices of the past and build upon its reputation as an economic powerhouse in the future.

Allow me to explain.

Like many American cities, Salt Lake City has, historically, carried out discriminatory practices, particularly redlining. Take the Yalecrest neighborhood. In 1940, it was given an A grade (“Best”), as it was seen as a desirable area Similar grades were also given to other east side neighborhoods, such as Sugarhouse, Wasatch Hollow, Greater Avenues and Bonneville.

Beyond State Street, grades plummeted to C’s (“definitely declining”) and D’s (“hazardous”). This system was used to discriminate primarily against Black and brown people by denying them home loans or enforcing restrictive covenants in desirable areas. This was committed under the unjust premise that if people of color moved into or near these white-only enclaves, property values would decline.

Prohibiting people of color from living in desirable neighborhoods is plainly evidenced in the demographic distribution of Salt Lake City 90-some years later. According to the most recent data provided by the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS), the average median household income for the east side (separated by State Street) was $80,454 and 20 percent non-white in 2020. The average median household income for the westside was $53,285 and 46 percent non-white in 2020. In other words, there are 130 percent more people of color living on the westside, earning 34 percent less.

Redlining goes beyond flatly denying home loans to people of color. Instead, housing discrimination is subtler today, such as appraisers under-valuing Black and brown homes, preventing them from building equity and the chance to pass on the full value of their assets to family. This exacerbates income inequality by dampening generational wealth.

Likewise, lower property values translate into a weaker tax base, diminishing a neighborhood’s capacity to attract and sustain business investments or receive adequate governmental funding for basic services. After all, investment, either public or private, begets investment. For this reason, Salt Lake neighborhoods west of State Street given poor grades in the 1930s are still harmful to human health (given their proximity to the airport and other heavy industries), and underdeveloped as far as access to transit, healthcare, fresh food, quality schools, and high-paying jobs that would otherwise bridge socioeconomic disparities.

Housing prices would become more affordable in the “best” areas of Salt Lake City if there is more housing via higher densities, called for by the city’s proposed Affordable Housing Overlay. Additionally, denser housing doesn’t necessitate more cars. With higher density housing comes communities that are gradually redesigned to be hospitable to walking and biking over car ownership and driving.

To boot, high-density housing developments not only improve human health, but are environmentally sustainable in other ways, as they are more energy efficient and use less resources per person. The city could also utilize some of this extra space for public parks, as opposed to the secluded and wasteful nature of the single-family lawn. Talk about decreasing the carbon footprint!

The bottom line is that I can no longer stand idly by while at least 74,112 (39 percent) of my neighbors are deprived of the right to economic and social mobility. Increasing housing could make this good city a great one, as concentrating the population around vital resources and opportunities may elevate economic productivity, human health, and social well-being over time, especially for marginalized people. We have the tools and demand to do it. But it’s chilling that a vocal, privileged few stand in the way of our elected City Council members from achieving this more vibrant and equitable future.

Brint Novinska-Lois

Briant Novinska-Lois is a second year master’s student in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah and is a Salt Lake City resident.