On a hot evening in early June, roughly 100 Salt Lake City residents settled into tightly packed rows of folding chairs in the gymnasium of Bonneville Elementary, on the east side. They were there to hear from speakers chosen by the Yalecrest Neighborhood Council and the group Keep Educating and Encouraging Preservation of Yalecrest (KEEP) to highlight the shortcomings of a new city plan to incentivize affordable housing.
After an hour of detailed presentations about yard setbacks, deed restrictions and historic districts, the evening veered off-course when Atticus Edwards, a young man sitting near the back, took the microphone during a Q&A and rolled a rhetorical hand grenade down the aisle.
Edwards launched into a diatribe linking single-family zoning—one housing unit per plot of land—to racist policies designed to segregate neighborhoods and keep low-income people out.
“How are you going to take moral responsibility for this historic discrimination in Salt Lake City?” Edwards eventually asked, as the panelists looked on in visible confusion and annoyance.
While not as broadly understood or closely followed as other questions of the day, Salt Lake City’s affordable housing proposal is the next big civic brawl. And at stake is a simple question: Who is the future being built for?
Is it for existing households, like those in Yalecrest, wanting to maintain the status quo of their single-family neighborhoods? Or is it for new residents who don’t live here yet—or who have not yet moved out on their own—but could if more multi-family housing were available and made more affordable.
Is it for renters, who send large slices of their income away to build wealth for someone else? Or is it for homeowners, whose properties represent their retirement, or a nest egg to pass along to the next generation?
“Growth in Salt Lake City is happening whether we want it or not,” said Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant professor in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. “We can plan ahead for it, or we can be caught.”
Passions are high because many don’t see a place for themselves if the other side succeeds. And the more time the city spends debating new housing instead of building it, the higher the overall cost of living can be expected to climb.
“If the city doesn’t do more to promote affordability, we will run out of time, land and opportunity,” said Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center.
Across the map
Controversy around the affordable housing proposal has surged as more people come to understand that the plan’s aim is to reach further and apply more broadly than previous housing initiatives, which focused on individual, high-density projects located near the city center or other built-up areas.
Designed to lay on top of existing zoning rules, the new incentives would apply to all residential areas, from Downtown with its multi-family apartment buildings, to the quiet streets lined with single-family homes in neighborhoods such as Sugar House, Yalecrest and Highland Park.
“People in the more affluent neighborhoods didn’t realize it would affect them,” Rigolon said. “They see a proposal about ‘affordable housing’ and might automatically assume it is targeted somewhere else—except this time, it isn’t.”
A month before the Yalecrest forum, dozens of speakers delivered almost two hours of irate public comment against the new policy to the city’s planning commission. Sounding off were leaders from five community councils, dozens of homeowners, renters advocates and a stream of young people aligned with the Wasatch Tenants Union, who criticized the plan as an unaffordable giveaway to developers.
Almost everyone at the hearing said a version of, “I want more affordable housing, but…” with their next sentences bashing the city’s proposal as too lenient, impossible to enforce or a threat to existing neighborhoods.
Several speakers rejected the notion that the city faces a housing shortage at all, or that it should seek to accommodate any of the newcomers who want to live in their city.
The spectacle led former Salt Lake County Council member Shireen Ghorbani to describe the hearing as “liberal-on-liberal violence” on an episode of the City Cast Salt Lake podcast, before warning this was just the beginning of the turmoil this plan could create.
In the Zone
Every parcel of land in Salt Lake City is assigned to a zoning district that defines what can—and can’t—be built on it. These rules impose limits on roof heights and the distance from a building to the sidewalk, as well as parking and the overall usage of the lot (i.e., residential or retail).
Most single-family homes are zoned R-1-5000, which limits one housing unit to a parcel at least 5,000 square feet in area. Other parcels fall in R-2 districts, which allow for duplexes or attached homes.
Apartment buildings are typically located in zones like RMF-35, designed for moderate-density dwellings up to 35 feet in height. And parcels for industry, parks and mixed residential and retail areas each have their own specific zones.
But zoning isn’t absolute. Almost every month, the planning commission or city council review requests to waive the rules for a specific project, usually at the behest of a developer seeking to increase the scale of a new building. Most of these variances are granted, many over local opposition.
What makes the new affordable housing incentives significant for the city’s housing stock—and scary for many residents—is how the plan would supplant that tradition of case-by-case developmental review with more streamlined, modernized and permissive rules.
Put simply, the city’s proposal encourages the development of more affordable housing by exchanging greater density allowances in return for lower rents.
And for the first-time in decades, multi-family housing could be built “by right”—without review—in single-family R-1 zones, overcoming the protective, bureaucratic walls that have long been used to keep out dense developments.
“This would be the largest land use change since the [city’s] 1995 ordinance was adopted,” explained Cindy Cromer, a landlord and housing activist who opposes the new plan. “In terms of its scale, it is massive.”
And while the current plan restricts the inclusion of multi-family dwellings to areas adjacent to major roads or located within a quarter-mile of high frequency transit, that stipulation will likely go away. “We would still allow the incentives, but not require it to be tied to transit,” said Sara Javoronok, a senior planner with the city’s planning division.
If adopted, the plan would allow property owners to replace a single-family home in most neighborhoods with a duplex, triplex, townhouse cluster or cottage development, as long as half the units were affordable for lower-income residents.
“The city is giving away single-family zoning as a trading chip to get more affordable housing built,” said Rigolon. “And for the first time, each neighborhood is being asked to do its part.”
A key issue—and the reason some renters’ and low-income housing advocates like Wasatch Tenants Union and Crossroads Urban Center oppose the plan—is its definition of “affordable.” In its current form, individuals earning at or below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) would pay rent no greater than 30% of their take-home pay.
That means a family of three with a yearly salary of $66,000 could rent a unit for $1,660 month, about $200 less than the current median rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake County.
The affordability requirements would be attached to the properties through deed restrictions lasting for 30 years and monitored by the city, although the enforcement process is not yet defined.
Tibbitts, of Crossroads Urban Center, wants to see the AMI thresholds lowered. “Our problems are not with the affordable housing, but with the proposals to get there,” he said. “We are telling the city, ‘Don’t be timid.'”
Cromer agreed that the income metrics must include people earning less. “Don’t talk to me about 80% AMI. I want to see a number that is much lower,” she said, adding that developers are fine with the current proposal, but “the public” is not.
The city also seems onboard with changing the requirements around the breadth and depth of affordability. “Based on the feedback from the commission and the public comment, we are going to look at the percentage AMI that we are requiring, and the percentage of units required to be affordable,” Javoronok said.
Reducing the income threshold might be the only common ground. The list of complaints against the city’s plan is long and nuanced, but starts with the seismic change to allow multi-family dwellings in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.
At both the Yalecrest forum and the planning commission hearing, critics of the plan decried a future where traditional homes could be torn down and replaced with duplexes and triplexes. Speakers claimed this incursion would unleash troubles ranging from water shortages to depressed property values to cheaper construction methods.
Jesse Hulse, an architect specializing in urban-infill projects who lives in Highland Park and runs an office in Central 9th, doesn’t think the city’s proposal is worth the risk to single-family zoning. “We are putting our finger on the scale without realizing how this intervention will impact existing neighborhoods,” he said.
Cromer also believes the potential negatives of the incentives outweigh the predicted gains in affordable housing. “I’m not willing to compromise any neighborhood, including my own, for a proposal that doesn’t actually help a lot of people,” she added.
But some critics paint a misleading and false picture of giant apartment towers looming over quaint bungalows. The latest draft plan from the city requires that new multi-family units meet existing zoning rules, meaning a triplex could only be as tall as the single-family home it replaces. Setbacks would also be largely unchanged in single-family zones and developers would have to adhere to the requirements of local historic districts.
Under these restrictions, the most tangible change created by replacing a single-family home with a new multi-family structure would be the total number of residents on a parcel and, likely, the number of cars parking overnight. And while the plan would expand the number of multi-unit properties, in virtually no area would those developments be unprecedented, as zoning prior to 1995 allowed basement apartments and duplexes in traditionally single-family areas.
“People tend to forget that townhomes and duplexes already exist in many of these neighborhoods,” explains Rigolon. “When I hear people talking about a new duplex as high-density housing, I have to laugh a little bit. This debate is not about high-density housing.”
While much of the vocal opposition to the plan has originated from single-family neighborhoods on the East Bench and in Sugar House, the impacts would be far greater in more built-up areas of the city. Housing changes in RMF-35 districts would be more significant under the current plan, allowing increased density and reduced side and rear yards in return for setting aside between 20% and 40% of units for lower-income earners.
Likewise, variances in existing high-density and mixed-use districts would allow 1 to 3 extra stories of construction in exchange for including designated affordable units.
Traditionally, units in these large-scale developments have been rentals, and incentivizing that trend concerns Amy Hawkins, chairperson of the Ballpark Community Council. After noting that 79% of Ballpark residents are renters in her remarks to the planning commission, Hawkins was dismayed that affordable-housing incentives did nothing to promote homeownership in the city.
“Renters who want to become homeowners are desperate,” she explained. “Without a way to incentivize for-sale housing, developers will continue to show up to Ballpark with rentals.”
Other critics question the city’s ability to enforce the deed restrictions, citing the city’s failure to police short-term rentals (like Airbnbs). “The price tag for enforcement is not defined or discussed,” says Cromer, after running through the backlog of stalled housing investigations and reviews she witnesses as a landlord. “Everything about this ordinance depends on the deed restriction and enforcement of reduction in rent.”
Cromer also predicts developers will find and exploit loopholes in the policy to negate any impact on affordable housing. “Providing incentives to people who don’t want to provide less-expensive housing—who instead want to build market-rate housing—is flawed.”
NIMBY or YIMBY
Critics of the affordable housing incentives also challenge the economics behind incentivizing denser housing to reduce rents. Giving developers more floors and more units will just drive up land prices, says Hulse. “Up-zoning increases the value of the land,” he said, “making developments more expensive, and making larger projects necessary to justify the increased land price.”
Cromer sees another danger—the demolition of existing affordable housing in order to use the incentives to add density and increase rents for market-rate units.
“The city’s plan will make land more valuable than the current housing that exists on it,” she said. “I’m not convinced we are going to gain more housing than we would lose.”
After all the opposition, who is defending the city’s plans? Of the almost 50 speakers and written comments at the May planning commission hearing, only two people offered support for the plan. One of those lone voices, a homeowner and parent from the Foothill-Sunnyside neighborhood, connected the city’s lack of affordable housing to the decline in student enrollment at Salt Lake City public schools, citing both as troubling trends for the city’s future viability.
Other public backers include the city planners who devised it and academics with expertise in urban planning, like Rigolon, who understand why some residents oppose change, but says cities like Salt Lake must continue to evolve.
“Why do we stop now when the need is greatest, when we have sky-rocketing rents and a housing shortage?” Rigolon says. “It is in the public interest for everyone to chip in a little bit for collective goals that we as a city share.”
Rigolon believes there are residents who support the goals and methods of the city’s plan—including renters—but they aren’t as aware, engaged or organized as the its opponents—yet. “Unlike other comparable cities, we don’t have organizations that are specifically advocating for more housing. There is no active YIMBY [Yes In My Backyard] housing group in Salt Lake City,” he said.
Also naturally missing from the debate are the future residents of Salt Lake City who stand to benefit from having affordable housing to one day live in. They are tomorrow’s constituency unable to make their case today.
Babs De Lay, a realtor and former member of the city’s planning commission (and regular City Weekly contributor) supports the city’s zoning proposal and considers many of the arguments against it to be exaggerated.
“No one can say their property values have gone down because someone built a duplex next to them,” De Lay said. “The people who are complaining are the people who bought a home five years ago when prices were half what they were now.”
From the city’s perspective, the affordable housing incentives are an outgrowth of years of reports and surveys indicating that Salt Lake City is becoming a prohibitively expensive place to rent or buy housing. In response, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall asked the planning division to come up with a real plan to address the housing crisis.
“When we got started, we thought of it as a zoning overlay. As it progressed, we didn’t think that mapping it was necessary,” explained Nick Norris, the city’s planning director. “We wanted to create other types of incentives in our zoning code that we haven’t developed yet.”
While the use of incentives to steer development trends isn’t new or innovative, Norris said using them to promote affordable housing is. In their staff report, city planners cited similar incentive structures in Los Angeles; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Austin, Texas; while Bozeman, Montana, recently began exploring an initiative that utilizes the same approach.
“More and more cities are looking at incentives for affordable housing because of how rapidly the cost of housing has changed,” Norris said.
Norris acknowledged that the enforcement side of the plan—a common touchstone for critics—remains a work in progress. “Our first step is to get the incentives right,” he said. “The second step is to work with city departments and the public about what enforcement looks like, knowing it would require new reallocation of resources.”
Norris also believes that the concerns raised about the city’s single-family neighborhoods becoming overrun with multi-family dwellings aren’t realistic. In short, he thinks the incentives will most appeal to established developers who are already building affordable housing, and could now build more.
“We don’t think a small-scale, private developer is going to use these incentives,” Norris said. “We believe the incentives will be used to add additional height and process modifications [particularly] around Downtown, where the majority of units will be added.”
Ultimately, any change to the city’s zoning rules must be approved by the Salt Lake City Council. While the planning commission will get another chance to review the draft plan, hold more public hearings and make a recommendation to the city, the final decision rests with the council’s seven elected members.
That means this debate will inevitably shift from academics and advocates to enter the general political arena, with all the complex questions that destination brings. Will city council members vote for a plan after hourslong public hearings where every speaker is opposed? Will changes to the plan’s affordability metrics encourage more support from advocates and low-income families? And how much influence can Mayor Mendenhall bring to the issue?
All of these questions remain largely unanswered more than three years after the city started brainstorming the solutions that became its incentive plan. A lot depends on the changes made to the next version of the plan. Or does it?
“People will continue to be afraid of it, because it is change, and will fight it tooth and nail,” predicted De Lay. “It’s all about NIMBYism and white privilege.”
Plus, in case you are worried the drama over zoning in Utah’s capital city will end too soon, there’s more on the horizon. The next big project for the city’s planning division might be to design another zoning overlay—this one focused on where homeless shelters can be located.