SLC mayoral and council elections: Housing and development becoming wedge issues?

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Four city council seats—of seven—and the mayor’s office are up for election this Nov. 21 in Salt Lake City.

It’s the first mayoral election to be conducted with Ranked Choice Voting. It’s also an election likely to be decided on housing issues.

In a debate last night hosted by the Salt Lake Tribune, PBS Utah, and KUER radio, the three mayoral candidates offered insight into their positions on multiple issues, including transportation and housing, which are central to our editorial mission here at Building Salt Lake.

Meanwhile, several city council races may hinge on candidates being in support or opposition to City Hall’s recent infill zoning changes, namely RMF-30 (passed last year) and the Affordable Housing Incentives, currently being discussed by the City Council.

During last night’s debate, former Mayor Rocky Anderson (2000-08) punched hard on homelessness, which has been his leading jab in the campaign. Incumbent Mayor Erin Mendenhall defended her record on affordable housing and homeless services while being accused of being in the pockets of developers by the fringe candidate, Michael Valentine—whose animating issue is the city’s give-away and demolition of the Utah Pantages Theater on Main Street.

Let’s look at the city election races that may hinge on land use, and perhaps transportation issues.

Erin vs. Rocky on housing and transportation

The dividing lines between the two main mayoral candidates are pretty clear at this point: How to respond to the homeless crisis, how to build affordable housing, and whether to oppose I-15 expansion.

Anderson’s answer for affordable housing is “social housing”—referencing Seattle and Vienna—a model that is government-funded and keeps a large number of homes outside the market.

 In the debate he called out “the current administration which continues along the old, worn-out paradigm: getting sucked into the market. It subsides for-profit developers, keeps shoving their pockets full with millions of city dollars, so they can keep building this horrible, mostly unaffordable, mostly architecturally awful, apartment buildings throughout our city that aren’t going to be affordable.”

He envisions “housing as a public good, just like our library, our streets, our airport, that we will build, and make sure is architecturally beautiful.”

Mendenhall responded in the debate to affordability and growth concerns with a “we can’t control it but we can get something out of it” attitude.

She cited 4000 new units of affordable housing being built out of leveraged city funds of $55 million in the last 3 ½ years, her term in office.

Homeless questions threatened to dominated the debate.

Anderson’s position: “We will be a safe and clean community, like we were before, when we can move the encampments out of our city once and for all. New York city doesn’t have encampments, Provo doesn’t have encampments, nor does West Valley City. Why in Salt Lake City do we have a mayor that acts as if they are inevitable?”

“I try to go down to a restaurant on Main St, just around 3rd South. I’m walking over unconscious bodies. And it’s disgusting. It’s filthy. People are afraid, there are people I know who say “We don’t even come down to Downtown Salt Lake City anymore, it has become so degraded.”

Anderson continued, “My heart goes out to people who are in need, but you can’t just look the other way as the mayor and her police department are doing and allow such impunity: no enforcement, no deterrence, with drugs everywhere.”

Turning away from housing questions, Mendenhall emphasized the city’s action on overall cost of living issues, noting that the average Utah household spends 20% of their income on transportation. The Mayor pointed to her record on expanding city bus routes, improving bus stops, as well as recently providing UTA passes for SLC public school students and families.

On this issue of street safety, specifically “making biking safer for children and adults” as a Tribune reader asked, both candidates spoke of separated bike facilities being a main part of the answer.

The hot topic of I-15 widening through Salt Lake City? Host Lauren Gustus of the Salt Lake Tribune in the debate’s “lightning round” demanded “a simple yes or no answer”:  Should Salt Lake City sue to stop I-15 expansion on the west side?”

Anderson: “If there is a good-faith legal basis, absolutely.”

Valentine: “Yes.”

Mendenhall: “No.”  

City Council races: 2, 4, 6, 7

District 2 (Poplar Grove, Glendale)

Incumbent Alejandro Puy is running unopposed. Puy’s been a strong supporter of city-wide affordable housing – a controversial issue—and city spending on homeless services. Along with District 1’s Victoria Petro, Puy has repeatedly challenged east side Council Members who have expressed resistance to infill ordinance liberalization.

District 4 (Downtown, Central City, East Central)

Incumbent Ana Valdemoros, who started her City Hall career as an entry-level planner, is facing former RDA project manager Clayton Scrivner and GenZer Eva Lopez.

Valdemoros has been on-board with City Hall initiatives on affordable housing and homeless services.

Lopez, who references Valdemoros’ unresponsiveness, is convinced “housing a human right,” and puts fighting displacement at the center of her platform. “Let’s spread the love and invite more neighbors into our neighborhoods” is representative a pro-infill housing position.

Luckily, all three candidates are urbanists – which is fitting, given District 4 is the city’s most dense district. Housing policy looks unlikely to become a wedge between the candidates. But wait—there are two east side districts voting for their city council representatives.

District 6 (East Bench)

If there were a ground zero for NIMBY single-family housing privilege in Salt Lake City, it’s District 6, which runs from the University of Utah on the north to Sugarhouse on the south.

 City red-lining maps marked District 6 “Best.” Racially-restrictive covenants (i.e. barring the “colored race”) in East Bench neighborhoods were common, and legal, from the 1920s to the late 1940s.

East Bench neighborhoods like Harvard-Yale and Wasatch Hollow rival the city’s toniest – and they’re good at organizing. Two terms aren’t guaranteed for their city council representative. They made JT Martin a one-termer (2008-2012) and most recently refused Charlie Luke (2012-2020) a third term.

Once insurgent and now Incumbent Dan Dugan, a progressive on energy, transportation, and affordable housing, is being challenged by James Alfandre, a local new urbanist developer with Urban Alfandre (a Building Salt Lake sponsor) and Taymour Semnani, an attorney and anti-density candidate.

Dugan, whose star rose with his opposition to the State of Utah’s Inland Port and alarm at the imminent collapse of the Great Salt Lake, is gingerly toeing the line between his urbanist principles and the NIMBYs, preservationists, and elitists among his constituency.

 Semnani is trying to exploit that wedge, telling voters “Density belongs Downtown” and “Say no more. Vote Taymour.”

Semnani offers the most explicit anti-development language by a (viable) city office seeker in recent memory.

Referring to the Affordable Housing Incentives changes, he states “Building 4-unit apartments next to single-family homes is not representative of our district. A vote for Taymour means protecting the owner-occupancy requirement [for ADUs], and says no to the destruction of our single family neighborhoods.”

Alfandre, along with Dugan, is toeing a rather fine line.

Speaking in his role as a developer, Alfandre states “I’m proud of the work we do to elevate neighborhoods using innovative, beautifully-designed housing options, that nurture healthy, sustainable communities, without compromising neighborhood character.”

Bikeable neighborhoods, with “well-designed, attainable housing options that are appropriately sized and thoughtfully located” are at the center of Alfandre’s housing vision. The should offer, he adds, “equal opportunities for present and future generations to establish lasting roots, while being sensitive to existing neighborhood character—which is really important.”

District 7 (Sugar House)

The incumbent Sarah Young was appointed by the City Council with the resignation of Amy Fowler this spring.

Young is having her urbanist mettle tested in the Council’s current consideration of the Affordable Housing Incentives ordinance. She, District 3’s Chris Wharton, and District 6’s Dan Dugan have all expressed the interests of the single-family NIMBYs in their districts, as shown in this week’s City Council work session (at 3:25:00 of this recording).

Her only challenger, Molly Jones, is yet to attack any particular housing policy currently at City Hall on her website, referring instead to supporting “reasonable development” in Sugar House. Her website states “With more people moving into our city, we need to work to create more affordable housing while simultaneously preserving our neighborhoods and not overcrowding.”

Both of these candidates are looking for separation points. Housing is likely to emerge as one of them.

Email Luke Garrott

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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.