Citing a need to help the homeless, Salt Lake City is poised to expand micro-apartment policy

Utah’s homelessness and housing crises are putting pressure on Salt Lake City to move forward with a policy that would expand the locations where developers and the state could build “micro-apartments” despite lingering questions over geographical inequity. 

The City Council is waiting for final tweaks from planning staff and appears ready to approve a policy that would allow the small dwelling units in areas that are zoned for commercial uses in the coming months.

The issue is potentially exacerbated by the state’s decision to close the Downtown shelter — a building it owns — while Utah heads into winter, despite concerns over an apparent lack of emergency shelter space and a scramble to find enough housing for those most at risk of exposure.

SROs aren’t exclusively low-income and in other cities have been developed for moderate-income renters. But the city, state and county are approaching them as a potential tool for quickly and easily generating more housing for low-income renters and residents on the verge of or emerging out of homelessness.

“Studies read by City Council staff describe single-room occupancy hotels as the lowest-cost, permanent rental housing that is the lowest rung on the housing ladder and often occupied by the aged, disabled and working poor,” city documents state.

The Salt Lake City Council had been preparing to vote in the spring on the policy but held off, partly over concerns over which areas in town would be off-limits to SROs and which could see clusters of them. Among the requirements developers and building owners would have to follow:

  • Apartments would need to be a minimum of 100 square feet for a single person or 120 square feet for two.
  • Units could have either a private bathroom or kitchen, but not both. They could also have neither amenity.
  • SROs could house 1-2 tenants each on either a weekly or a monthly basis.
  • Developments would require fewer parking spaces per unit than other similar developments.
Salt Lake City would permit small, single-room occupancy units in the zones throughout the city that are shown here in different colors. City planners are proposing to avoid allowing them in neighborhoods zoned single-family. Image courtesy of Salt Lake City Planning

Decades ago, the city had hundreds of SRO units. Many of Downtown’s “European Style” hotels (meaning shared bathrooms) were converted to SROs at some point in their history. Today, only a few dozen units remain.

The policy would begin to address an issue that’s not helping to keep up with the demand for all types of housing in town: nearly four out of five acres in Salt Lake City is off-limits for housing development.

Of the 21% of land that allows housing, more than half (12.5%) allows only single-family housing, leaving about 8% for the remaining housing types.

“When it comes down to it, there’s just not a lot of land available for housing in the city,” said chief planner Nick Norris. “What we see is everything built Downtown and in Sugar House, and all our corridors (like) North Temple. But it makes up a very small percentage.” 

SROs, which planners and council members suggest should be rebranded to avoid negative connotations about the housing type, would help to expand the amount of land where housing could be generated. That would be done largely by opening areas previously zoned only for commercial uses to housing.

While that would be a step in the direction of smart growth, there are still concerns that it would lock existing geographical inequities in place indefinitely, with only promises to address that issue once the new SRO policy is in place.

Geographical divides

City staff pointed out at a recent meeting on the topic that the east side of Salt Lake City — which they defined as east of I-15 — would be able to accommodate SROs on far more acres of land than west of that divide, under the new rules.

Nearly 80% of land in Salt Lake City is off-limits to any kind of housing. Of the 21% that remains, 12.5% only allows single-family housing.

Nick Norris, head Salt Lake City planner

Right now in City Council Districts 1 and 2, developers could create SROs on 484 acres of land. Under the proposal, that would increase by about 800 acres, to 1,264.

In all districts east of the interstate today, SROs could be created on 204 acres of land, largely along 400 South and in the Central 9th neighborhood.

Under the proposal, that would increase to about 1,850 acres, meaning about two-thirds of the increase in land supply available for new SROs is east of the highway.

While it’s common for Salt Lakers to use the geographical divide created by the train tracks and interstate to define the city’s east and west sides, economic divides exist east of I-15 as well. That includes the Ballpark neighborhood, part of Council District 5, and South State Street corridor, which has undergone decades of neglect.

City staff didn’t provide a breakdown of where SROs would be allowed in the five districts east of I-15, though they’d apparently be clustered in the western portion of Districts 5, as well as large parts of District 4 and the 400 South Corridor.

The proposal from this spring that planning staff will slightly refine before council action would largely leave out the wealthiest areas of Salt Lake City, which have very few low-income rentals.

75% of Section 8 Voucher holders in 2018 were in low or very low opportunity Census tracts of the county, according to information from HUD and the Gardner Institute.

“Rent-assisted units are even more heavily concentrated in very low or low opportunity tracts,” the report says. “Over 90% of renter assisted units are in very low and low opportunity tracts. A very high percentage of voucher holders and renters are households at less than 50% AMI.”

That research shows that there are 8,802 units that received low-income housing tax credits — an indicator of public funding helping pencil out low-income housing — in low or very low opportunity areas of Salt Lake County. 3,135 units that were built using LIHTC are in moderate, high or very high opportunity areas, or about 26% of the LIHTC housing in the county.

Still, the need for low-income housing — housing affordable by those making minimum wage or slightly above — is so acute, the City Council indicated its interest at moving forward. 

“In my opinion, this is urgent,” said Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall, who still represents District 5. “This is something that we as a council should do what we can to instruct the Planning Department to prioritize these changes that we’ve been working with the housing community on.”

Then, the incoming mayor and others said, the city could start tackling the obvious geographical housing inequities.

Despite concerns about a potential lack of enough space for homeless residents, officials, including leaders from the state, closed The Road Home in November 2019 as Utah heads into its coldest months. Photo by Luke Garrott.

SLC zoning types that would allow SROs:

Downtown Central Business District; Downtown Support District; Downtown Secondary Central Business District; Downtown Warehouse/Residential; Residential Mixed-Use; Residential Mixed-Use-45; Residential Mixed-Use 35; Corridor Commercial; Sugar House Central Business District 1 and 2; General Commercial; Mixed Use; Gateway Mixed Use; Form-Based Special Purpose Corridor Core (Sugar House); and Form-Based Special Purpose Corridor Edge (Sugar House).

Single-room occupancy use would not be permitted in the following residential and commercial zones: 

All Foothill Residential districts; Residential 1/5,000; Residential 1/7,000; Residential 1/12,000; R-2 Single and Two-Family Residential District; all Special Development Pattern Residential districts; all Residential Multifamily districts; Residential/Office District; Neighborhood Commercial districts; Community Business districts; Community Shopping districts, and Small Neighborhood Business districts.

District 1 (Rose Park, Fairpark)

SROs would be clustered primarily around North Temple from 900 West to 2200 West.

District 2 (Glendale, Poplar Grove)

SROs would be allowed on north/south corridors along I-15, Redwood Road and 5600 West, as well as along 2100 South.

District 3 (Avenues, Capitol Hill and Marmalade)

Sections of the Marmalade neighborhood west of 300 West would allow SROs, while all of Capitol Hill and all but one parcel of land in the Avenues wouldn’t offer the permission.

District 4 (Downtown SLC)

Much of the city’s urban core would allow the development of SROs.

District 5 (Liberty Wells, Central 9th, Ballpark, 9th and 9th)

SROs would be available largely west of State Street. The 9th and 9th neighborhood, which is largely zoned Commercial Business, wouldn’t allow SROs. Several notorious motels along State and Main streets could be converted to SROs, as has already happened on a temporary basis at the Capitol Motel.

District 6 (East Bench, Yalecrest)

SROs wouldn’t be permitted in this East Bench district.

District 7 (Sugar House)

Sugar House would allow SROs primarily running east/west along 2100 South, as well as on either side of Highland Drive between 2100 South and I-80.

Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.