Tribune Editorial: Even with Salt Lake City’s investment, it’ll take more coordinated planning to create enough affordable housing

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Mayor Jackie Biskupski, left, and Mike Akerlow, Deputy Director of Community and Neighborhoods speak at announcement of Salt Lake City’s first affordable housing plan in 16 years, “Growing SLC: A Five-Year Plan 2017 – 2021.” The plan is designed to fundamentally shift the way housing is done in Salt Lake City, strategically addressing short- and long-term housing solutions.

Salt Lake City has plans to invest in affordable housing. That’s a good thing. With The Road Home’s planned closure in July 2019, the city will have 400 fewer shelter beds available. Additionally, the city is expecting 30,000 more people by 2030.

Those people will need somewhere to live. And by somewhere, we mean affordable housing, in safe parts of town, without rodent infestations and within walking distance to transit.

It will require some coordinated planning. The goal, still insufficient to meet the growing need, is 1,000 units of affordable housing. Redevelopment Agency staff, with $22 million available for housing needs, is eager to get started.

First up is the Overniter Motel on North Temple. The property has long been a nuisance for neighbors and city regulators. The RDA wants to loan $4 million to help the Western Regional Nonprofit Housing Corporation acquire and raze the property, and build a $44 million mixed-rate housing complex in its stead.

At least that’s what the RDA staff and Mayor Jackie Biskupski wanted to do. In a surprise vote Tuesday night, the city council, sitting as the RDA board, instead voted unanimously to purchase the property and open its development up to a competitive bidding process.

It was a good decision. A red flag of the RDA’s development plan was the makeup of the commission examining these issues. Mayor Jackie Biskupski convened the commission earlier this year, and it is “made up primarily of local investors and developers” and city officials. We need more than self-interested investors and developers in on the planning stages of these projects. Transparency and community buy-in are essential, as the city brutally learned during the shelter site-selection process.

The City Council appears to understand those concerns. Biskupski, though, uttered an unbelievable “wow” after the council told the RDA‘s chief operating officer that they were not just going to blindly accept its recommendation of a “willing developer.”

With incentives for current projects and additional building opportunities, the RDA estimates the city will spend $28,322 per affordable unit.

It’s worth it. But only $22 million available means an increase of only 764 units – not nearly enough to meet the growing need.

City officials still need to make important determinations about what exactly qualifies as affordable housing. Some define affordable housing as housing available to someone earning between 40 percent and 60 percent of the area’s median income (AMI). Hereabouts, 40 percent figures to around $25,000 for a family of four.

But many are concerned that we need housing available for households earning even less than 40 percent AMI – under $20,000 a year, for example.

One thing is clear, affordable housing is on every official’s watch list. Hopefully the city council and RDA/mayor can move on from Tuesday evening’s change of plans and ensure a transparent and efficient process going forward.

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