City’s displacement consultants drop data bomb: there’s ‘nowhere to go’ for displaced renters

Even though you know, through anecdotes and experience, that something is happening doesn’t mean that those impressions are true across the board.

The city’s department of Community and Neighborhoods and City Council received the results last week of an impressively data-rich, multi-pronged community survey that confirms the worst fears of policy-makers and lower-income city residents.

Not only are rising rents in affordable neighborhoods driving out low-income people, but the region provides very few options for finding a new home nearby. “They’ll become homeless, double-up, or leave the state altogether,” a consultant who’s studied displacement nation- and world-wide told the City Council. 

“This is something that I have never seen before.”

Some of the study’s findings

With a rapidly growing population and a housing inventory that is mostly suburban and narrowed by geography, housing stock on the Wasatch Front provides few if any safety valves for people who have lost their housing and are looking for something cheaper.

The Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley and Baird + Driskell Community Planning Firm collaborated with two graduate classes from the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the U. of Utah to produce the study. It involved complex data sets and manipulation of variables, grassroots outreach using community liaisons, focus groups (including one of unsheltered people), workshops with youth, and face-to-face surveys with the general public.

The results can be found at ThrivinginplaceSLC.org, under “What we heard and learned.”

Rent is dominating many household budgets

According to US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data from 2015-19, a whopping 50% of renters in Salt Lake City are “cost-burdened,” in that they pay more than 30% of their income on rent. That’s one-quarter of the city’s population, as 50% of its residents are renters.

One quarter of the renting population spends 50% or more of their income on rent. These “severely-rent burdened” residents are most likely to be displaced, the study’s results say.

One-half of all renters in SLC are “cost-burdened,” and one-quarter pay 50% or more of their income in rent.

Affordability and displacement trends are eye-popping

The image below maps the study’s affordability and likely-displacement indexes.

The affordability index is calculated by aggregating the total number of households that are low-income region-wide (extremely low income and very low income are set at 50% AMI, and moderately low-income at 80% AMI), and dividing it by the number of rentals that they can afford to move to in the area.

The likely-displacement index (the red hashmark) indicates those census tracts that have seen an out-migration of low-income people and also show indications from over 60 variables that the displacement is likely to continue.

The maps don’t look good for affordability and availability. Not just for Salt Lake City or County, but all the way from Ogden to Provo. 

Of the hundreds of census tracts from Ogden to Provo, only five are currently affordable to people making 50% of AMI and aren’t experiencing displacement – two in Orem, one in Layton, and two in Ogden.

Very few census tracts in Salt Lake County are staying affordable to people making 50% or lower of AMI. Courtesy The Urban Displacement Project/Salt Lake City

The city’s getting whiter

Disproportionately it’s people of color who are at 50-80% AMI and can’t afford rising rents. New move-ins are more often white than the people they replace. “Notably, the Pacific Islander community has the largest share of its population living in tracts with displacement risk” in the city, states the study.

The middle class gets squeezed while the bottom falls out

The competition for housing in Salt Lake City and the region is fierce. There are three people at 30% AMI for every one unit affordable to them. 

At the same time, Salt Lake City’s renter population is top-heavy. The study notes that people making 120% AMI and higher are the largest group of renters. The supply of housing at the top end of the affordability scale is less than demand, causing high-income households “to rent units below their price-point, taking units affordable to low-income and very low-income households off the market, especially in the most desirable neighborhoods, reducing the number of homes affordable” to others.

Reactions and Proposals

“The results are a call to action,” lead consultant David Driskell told the Council. 

Given the city’s aggressive use of available funds for affordable housing for at least the last five years, council members likely didn’t need to be told. They just passed the Mayor’s budget that included over $20 million in new spending on affordable housing.

Yet the wealth of deep, organized data presented at the Council’s July 12 work session seemed to shock some councilors.

Council Chair Dan Dugan (D6) called the results “scary,” while District 5’s Darin Mano professed to be “terrified.” 

The Avenues’ Chris Wharton (D3) asked Timothy Thomas, Research Director for UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, “Aren’t a lot of cities experiencing this, where there are no more affordable neighborhoods? What is different from what you’ve seen before?”

In the other areas he’s studied, Thomas said, “often there’s a place for people to be displaced to. Often that’s a community that is 40, 50, 60 miles away. Because the way the Wasatch Front is built up, it’s a very rural area, and there’s no neighboring town or suburb with affordable options.”

The next step for the consultants is to present action items to the city in a form that is both “pro-development and pro-tenant,” and they acknowledge that some of their proposals are currently forbidden in Utah state code.

When asked about the consultant’s post-report meetings at city hall, Thomas told us, “There’s definitely an appetite to make good, but a lot of limitations are at the state level. In all honesty, it’s really dire. Business as usual in SLC will increase displacement and homelessness without a doubt. They’re going to have to use a lot of ingenuity to solve this problem, and it’s not going to be easy.” 

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct the statement “There are three people at 50% AMI for every one unit affordable to them.” The data shows that the correct income number is at 30% AMI, not 50%.

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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.