Do new high-rises address affordability on the west side of Salt Lake City?

New apartments on N. West Temple.

Story and photos by SPENCER BUCHANAN

The economy is growing and unemployment is at its lowest level in a generation. But many working-class people are feeling the squeeze. Salt Lake City has been greatly benefiting from the high economic growth of the last five years. But according to KUTV, some lawmakers say many residents are feeling pushed out by rising home costs. With rising real estate prices, research from the University of Utah shows that some people fear Salt Lake City will start to experience housing crunches like San Francisco or Los Angeles. To meet with rising home shortages and prices the government of Salt Lake City is pushing new high-density housing developments. These boxy, four- to six-story buildings can be seen going up all over the city. A number of these developments have already come to the west side of Salt Lake City and many more are planned.

The Deseret News touted high-density developments as a way of increasing affordable housing especially, in high-growth areas.

Ivis Garcia-Zambrana is a professor in City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah and vice-chair of the Planning Commission in Salt Lake City. She says that the government of Salt Lake City is actively encouraging new high-density developments through a points-based building permit system, which fast-tracks apartments with affordable units by circumventing administrative reviews by the city planning commission and city council.

“Ideally, as a developer, you avoid all kinds of public meetings. What you do is have an application that follows all the rules … you put in an application that seems so good that you get extra points,” Garcia-Zambrana said.

More points are given to projects that are high-density and have affordable units. She said this system cuts months off a developer’s project time and shows the active encouragement of the city to build high rises. But does high-density housing address affordability issues?

“It’s either too expensive or it’s too small. So it’s pushing out families. So, gentrification is definitely happening on the west side of Salt Lake right now,” said Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, director of the University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) and resident of the west side of Salt Lake City.

“The Salt Lake School District is losing about 1,000 students a year to families having to move out of Salt Lake City because they can’t afford to live in Salt Lake City anymore,” Mayer-Glenn said.

She said affordable housing is a major concern for the residents of the west side. Mayer-Glenn ceded that many of the high-density developments are affordable, but they lack community involvement in the building process.

Garcia-Zambrana said high-density housing doesn’t address the “cost-burden” that many homeowners on the west side experience.

“Cost-burden” is when a resident pays more than 30% of their net income into housing. Garcia-Zambrana is actively studying the west side. In her research, she found residents in the Fair Park and Jordan Meadows neighborhoods, where many of the new high-rise apartments have been built, are not cost-burdened. But residents in Glendale and Rose Park, where the majority are homeowners, the neighborhoods are experiencing housing cost difficulties.

According to Zillow, rents in Salt Lake City average around $1,500 up from the average $1,200 rent in 2015. Salt Lake City has average rental rates compared to the rest of the nation. Areas mentioned by Garcia-Zambrana, Fair Park and Jordan Meadows, have even lower rents. But rent prices and values in Salt Lake City have significantly increased in the last five years. The average Salt Lake City home value today is at over $400,000. While areas on the west side have lower home prices, floating in the high $200,000s, these homes can still be a cost-burden. This is why many renters and owners are starting to move out of the west side and the city altogether.

“For the prices in Salt Lake, they can own a home somewhere else nearby. That’s where you can see some of the idea of displacement,” said Garcia-Zambrana. “Planners are very concerned about cost displacement, but it’s not easy to quantify as you have to know why each person is moving and there are a lot of factors. People may be ‘displaced’ but may not feel disenfranchised (pushed out of their neighborhood), just that they simply moved.”

The Overniter Motel, site of the future SLCRDA Spark! project.

An example of Salt Lake City planners addressing cost and displacement concerns is the Spark! project located at 1500 W. North Temple. This upcoming housing development being built by the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (SLCRDA) is planned to have 200 apartments with 50 designated as affordable or below-market-rate.

“We wanted to mesh housing, commercial, and open space. So there’s a balanced approach to it. So there’s a coffee shop but also a daycare. So it’s serving the community. And we try to focus on local businesses,” said Amanda Greenland, communications and outreach manager for the SLCRDA.

Projects like Spark! and Salt Lake City’s fast-tracking of high-density projects with affordable units show the city’s efforts to address rising housing cost. High-density housing, though, doesn’t address the cost-burden issues felt by homeowners on the west side. The cost of owning a home there is increasing, which is leading to much of the ire felt by longtime residents. High-rises in Salt Lake City are being built with affordable prices in mind but not with the ownership that many families look for. As the city grows and property values increase, homeownership on the west side may become a thing of the past.