“The only constant in life is change.”
— Heraclitus of Ephesus (c.535-475 BCE)
The people who run Salt Lake City have hired consultants and begun a formal process of considering how the redevelopment of the capitol city’s west side might leave many of the people who now live there without the affordable housing many of them have long enjoyed.
The term employed is “gentrification,” or the transition of a neighborhood or a community from one of homes and apartments the working class can afford to one overtaken by higher-end homes, condos and luxury apartments. As the evolution proceeds, pushed by an influx of population and an apparently insatiable demand for housing that appeals to the up-and-coming, an already insufficient stock of affordable housing becomes even smaller.
It is something to be worried about. But, like so many other issues associated with the growth of Utah’s urban areas, gentrification cannot be understood or addressed in a vacuum.
The Salt Lake Valley is under enormous growth pressure, both from the traditionally large families that live here and the magnets provided by our growing tech industry, our excellent institutions of higher learning and health care, our standout outdoor recreation opportunities. The quality of life that causes so many people to want to stay here, or want to move here, is itself under threat.
As a result, it is not only residents of working-class neighborhoods and their allies who are trying to stand athwart the housing market yelling, “Stop!” People of all socioeconomic groups are worried about the skyrocketing price of housing and the accompanying pressure to tear down what’s here and build denser, taller, more transit-dependent communities in search of the profits to be found at this point on the market curve.
NIMBYism, that is, knows no race, class or generation.
What is before us is an opportunity to steer the inevitable redevelopment of the city’s west side, and of many other neighborhoods in the urban area, in ways that are sustainable. That provide affordable — and deeply affordable — housing. That are built around public transit from the inception, not as an expensive afterthought. That use the latest in building technology to be energy efficient and not further degrade the quality of our air or our water supply.
There are tools in the kit that are available to cities, counties and the state. We can install 21st century net-zero carbon building codes. We can increase, decrease or even waive impact fees as developers play ball with the needs of whole communities rather than just their latest project. We can design and require a transition from an automobile-dependent culture to one that encourages walking, biking and riding affordable (perhaps even free) public transit.
The state is awash in cash, much of which should be applied to affordable housing and public transit. And Utah lawmakers should resist any temptation to limit the ability of municipalities to use their own laws to move in the right direction.
In many cases, that will mean building up, rather than out, for both commercial and residential developments. All those construction cranes that now hover over downtown Salt Lake City prove market demand is looking that way, and research indicates that lively urban cores are so popular with the rising generation that concerns about property values being wrecked by the addition of nearby high-rises are not founded in reality.
(Not that a little more creativity applied to the appearance of those all-too-uniform apartment blocks wouldn’t be a very good idea.)
Clearly, developers from all over want to build things in Salt Lake City and the surrounding communities. That gives all the affected city councils and county commissions a lot of leverage to require forward-looking, sustainable, affordable projects.
Done right, the changing west side of Salt Lake City will not only become equal to, or better than, the east side, but also be a place where more people can afford to live.