City council approves zoning change for market-rate boarding house in East Central over vociferous opposition

In a hotly-contested process opposed by a convergence of affordable housing advocates, neighborhood preservationists, and anti-gentrification activists, the City Council had little problem on Tuesday approving a zoning change and master plan amendment for a boarding-house co-housing development in a highly-desirable east Downtown neighborhood.

The project, at 129 South 700 East on a 1.55 acre site, will disappear a center-court street (Bueno Ave) and replace 7 homes that provide “naturally occurring affordable housing” with a 4-story, 65-unit building with 192 bedrooms that will be rented out individually, with shared kitchen, living room, and laundry. Each bedroom has a private bath.

The Council’s unanimous vote was preceded by District 3 representative Chris Wharton (Avenues, Capitol Hill) adding several conditions and legislative intent statements to the ordinance. Legislative Intents are not legally binding.

Wharton conditioned the ordinance with the following stipulations, seemingly in response to opposition concerns:

– no rentals under 30 days

– developers salvage materials from demolished buildings

– Legislative Intents: Charged city staff with developing “policy that outlines the council’s expectations when considering zoning applications in order to protect existing affordable housing or replace it if demolished… outlining steps the city could take to preserve or expand housing stock when considering zoning amendments…and a policy to help mitigate the impact to naturally existing affordable housing in the ongoing housing loss mitigation ordinance.”

Opposition at the Council’s December 7 public hearing included Melinda Main, representing East Central Community Council, who emphasized displacement issues in East Central, likely the most mixed-use area of the city:

“We continue to discourage the displacement of existing neighbors who depend on the moderately-priced homes they are currently renting,” Main told the Council.

Jen Colby, another District 4 resident, argued that inner court streets like Bueno are distinctive to the neighborhood, recognized in the master plan, and are “deliberately designed for smaller-scale workforce housing on small lots. It’s the kind of pattern smart growth advocates are trying to bring back, and a terrible mistake to eliminate it.”

Keenan Wells, a resident of the area who spoke in person, was critical of the loss of affordability and dignity of renters – of not being able to choose roommates in the project’s leasing structure or use a kitchen (roommates will share a kitchen in the dwellings).

Loss of dignity is also a message that Wasatch Tenants United, an anti-gentrification group, has been pressing on social media channels: “We need affordable housing! NOT dorms!” “No to micro-apartments.” “No to shared bathrooms.”

WTU interrupted the city council meeting immediately after the council voted unanimously in favor of the zoning change and master plan amendment with loud chants from outside the meeting room.

The display caused awkward moments after which Council Chair Amy Fowler, in her last meeting as Chair, called for a “brief recess” and told other members, “I would like you not to go outside right at this moment.”

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.