Salt Lake City is setting the stage to debate changes to its exclusive single-family zoning

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While the City Council will spend the next couple months focused on a $475 million general fund budget and possible sales tax hike, a new major policy issue has entered the scene: What should the city do with its single-family zoning?

City planners recently sent a report to the council outlining policy options for changes that would allow more infill housing citywide, including in single-family zones. They drafted the report at the request of the City Council.

The report outlines what approach Salt Lake City could take if it wanted to allow more family-sized housing in more areas of the city, and not just in zones that are already densifying with apartments. 

It comes at a time when Salt Lake City is preparing to close four elementary schools next year as a result of ongoing and steep enrollment declines. It also comes as housing prices across the Wasatch Front continue climbing to new record highs.

Staff noted that each change would either lead to minimal, if any, change, or would face pushback from existing homeowners who are territorial of the economic benefits they’re getting from existing rules that constrain housing supply and have driven up prices.

Among the four options:

  • Rezone large-lot single-family zones to an existing smaller-lot zone.
  • Rezone all single-family zones to allow attached single-family homes.
  • Consolidate existing zones into a single chapter to clarify the code.
  • Do nothing.

Each option includes caveats and nuance that would dictate how effective the change could be, if the Council decided to do anything.

1. Rezone R-1-7000 and R-1-12,000 to R-1-5000

A newly built home in the Liberty Wells neighborhood, which is primarily zoned R-1-5000.

This change would theoretically allow up to 5,011 properties in the city to be split, creating more lots where single-family homes might be built. But there’s a catch that would make this change less effective unless other changes are made.

Large setbacks in the zones would likely limit the number of new lots that could be created unless the council also moved to limit those in tandem.

Still, doing so would drastically reduce the number of existing lots that don’t comply with the zoning requirements because many homes in the R-1-7000 and R-1-12,000 zones are on lots that are already smaller than 7,000 and 12,000 square feet.

Staffers acknowledged that keeping large setbacks in the existing zones serves no public purpose other than to require that homes be spread farther apart.

“Maintaining minimum lot sizes in the R-1 zones may not be necessary to serve any public health, safety, or welfare purpose at this point,” staffers wrote.

It also could lead to existing homes being demolished due to the freed up development potential, depending on how any changes were framed.

The Council could go a step farther and reduce the minimum lot size for all R-1 zones to 4,000 square feet. That would allow someone with an 8,000-square-foot property subdivide the land and potentially create space for another home, if all other lot width and setback requirements are met.

2. Rezone all R-1 zones to allow attached single-family

A duplex in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Wells neighborhood.

Salt Lake City effectively has three missing middle zoning types after a series of rezones in the 40s, 50s and 90s. If the council wanted more family-sized homes to be built, it could choose to rezone all existing R-1 zones to one of them.

Currently, single-family attached homes are forbidden in all R-1 zones, even though neighborhoods throughout the city have examples of existing duplexes, triplexes and cottage courts that were built before the city rezoned itself.

Among those is SR-3, a small footprint infill zone with low parking requirements, small lot requirements and high lot coverage ratios. SR-3 allows for twin home and duplex developments, in addition to single-family attached and detached, on lots that are as small as 1,500 square feet.

Another is FB-UN1, a zone that was created for the Central 9th neighborhood and allows multiple homes on small-scale lots and with small setbacks. 

“This is likely to be highly controversial,” planning staff wrote of either option.

Without a doubt, virtually any path the council decides to do is likely to be politically more difficult than doing nothing even though doing nothing wouldn’t address Utahns’ No. 1 stated issue: lack of affordable housing.

Eliminating detached single-family zoning — allowing private property owners to choose to build more housing types on their properties — would likely lead to more housing being built in more places, planners wrote.

3. Consolidate R-1 zones into a single chapter

Consider this one step above doing nothing, with the city coming out of the gate acknowledging it “will not help address housing issues or needs.” 

This would be a change in paperwork that could make it easier for residents and developers to understand what the zoning allows while maintaining the minimum lot requirements in the existing zones. As such, it may also free up staffing time, which is worth something.

4. Do nothing

Need we say more? It’s too soon to say where the Council is leaning and how hungry they are for another protracted fight around housing policy.

This actually seems like the least likely option.

Political realities ahead of the debate

Based on recent debates over housing policies like ADUs and the affordable housing incentives, intense political pressure will likely come from the districts whose constituents are wealthiest and most vocal against perceived threats to the money that’s tied up in the homes they own.

Still, the planners pointed out that the city could implement even the most far-reaching changes without decreasing existing property values, while at the same time providing more housing opportunities for a wider range of people.

“The evidence suggests that, when implemented responsibly and in response to housing trends, additional dwelling units can positively contribute to neighborhood vitality without causing a decrease in property values,” the planners wrote.

The most vocal residents are likely to live in the Avenues, Capitol Hill, the East Bench, Yalecrest and the eastern portion of Sugar House.

There are 1,472 lots that are zoned to require at least 12,000 square feet per house. Most of them are east of 1300 East. Nearly half of the existing lots in Salt Lake City aren’t big enough to comply with the minimum lot requirement.

Still, the residents from those roughly 660 homes are likely to be vocal over the perceived threat of having more neighbors.

There are far more lots zoned R-1-7000, many of them on the west side and in parts of Sugar House, and R-1-5000. Political realities in those areas vary widely.

Councilman Alejandro Puy, whose district includes Glendale and Poplar Grove, has been vocal about the need for more density citywide after intense development put pressure on pockets in the city rather than spreading it out equitably. 

Councilman Darin Mano may too be amenable to doing more than next to nothing. Mano, an architect by trade, has applied his industry insider knowledge to ADU changes, affordable housing incentives and more.

Those two aren’t likely to face as much political pressure, though.

Eva Lopez, whose District 4 includes Downtown and parts of Central City that largely don’t have single-family exclusive zoning, could remain a swing voice on the matter.

That likely won’t stop residents from showing up to meetings asking the Council to protect their quality of life and neighborhood character, by which they mean high land values.

This debate, if the council decides to take it up, will likely test the voices of the relatively nascent YIMBY movement in Salt Lake City, which has begun to organize through new nonprofit groups.  

Either way, it will test the city’s willingness to pave a new path forward on housing policies of yesterday.

“Minimum lot sizes were also added for reasons that resulted in neighborhoods being segregated by race, ethnicity, and income by effectively blocking smaller lots with smaller homes that were more affordable and more accessible,” the report says.

Email Taylor Anderson

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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.