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Salt Lake mayor ‘stoked’ about 2K affordable housing units in pipeline

SALT LAKE CITY — As the Wasatch Front continues to face a shortfall of affordable housing, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Tuesday celebrated the progress her administration has made to tee up about 2,000 new units over the next several years to begin closing Salt Lake City’s 7,500-unit gap.

The mayor also announced two more proposals to help accomplish the goals laid out in her five-year housing plan, Growing SLC — one to incentivize developers to build more affordable units using fee waivers, and one to preserve existing housing stock by requiring replacement of units if they’re redeveloped through a revamped city ordinance.

If approved by the City Council, Biskupski’s proposal would expand fee waivers for developers who set aside at least 20 percent of a project’s units for low-income residents. Biskupski also proposed replacing the city’s existing "but ineffective" policy to require all levels of housing stock to be replaced if it’s redeveloped.

The mayor’s announcements come amid what political leaders have been calling a "housing crisis." A recent state report estimated Utah has a shortfall of about 40,000 affordable units for extremely low-income households.

It’s been less than a year since the City Council adopted Biskupski’s five-year housing plan, but already "our team has been busy laying the groundwork for a more affordable future," Biskupski said at a news conference on the rooftop of Liberty Blvd Apartments, a 266-unit mixed-income project that began leasing in March.

Biskupski applauded her administration’s work on Growing SLC, saying she’s "most proud" of city leaders for securing new ongoing revenue to invest in affordable housing programs with the 0.25 percent sales tax hike approved earlier this year.

We know there is no single solution when it comes to promoting and preserving affordable housing. Our goal as a city is to become invested in the development of housing so we can ensure affordability is included in as many projects as possible.

–Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski

"With a five-year housing plan and the funding from the sales tax increase that was secured, the next few steps and many years to come will be a turning point in affordable housing in Salt Lake City," Biskupski said.

"We know there is no single solution when it comes to promoting and preserving affordable housing," she said. "Our goal as a city is to become invested in the development of housing so we can ensure affordability is included in as many projects as possible."

In an interview Monday, Biskupski said the city expects to add at least 2,000 new affordable units by the end of 2019, but Melissa Jensen, director of Housing and Neighborhood Development for Salt Lake City, said those units likely won’t become available until closer to the end of 2020.

"This is a big deal," Biskupski said. "I’m stoked."

Biskupski praised the work of her Blue Ribbon Commission, a board of community organizations, developers and financiers that focus on securing tax increments for affordable housing projects. Since the launch of the five-year plan, the commission has successfully secured tax increments for three deeply affordable housing projects.

City officials have also launched a $1 million affordable housing renovation pilot program to help landlords improve the quality of their affordable rental units and created a land trust that preserves affordable housing in perpetuity.

So far, six homes have been put into the trust, Jensen said.

"All of these are just one step in the right direction," Jensen said. "We have five years to work on this plan, and what we understand is there’s no one single solution, but a myriad and the city is deeply, deeply committed to the issue and finding the best solution."

Jensen said the affordable housing crisis is "personal" to her. She grew up in a home that struggled financially.

"You can talk to anyone today, and they will have a story of their struggle," Jensen said. "For me, the struggle isn’t new. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Isn’t it a normal thing that you share a room with you mother until you’re 15?’

"That is not normal, I will tell you," Jensen said, "but it is normal for many families who struggle to keep a roof over their head like I did."

Pat Slabaugh cooks noodles in her apartment in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. In the almost 20 years she has been working as a receptionist, Slabaugh has seen wages stay about the same, which has been difficult for her as housing prices have risen. (Photo: James Wooldridge, KSL)

Pat Slabaugh, 65, who moved into an affordable unit in the Liberty Blvd Apartments, said she moved from England to Utah with her ex-husband and bought a home in Tooele because it was affordable. But when she couldn’t work for three months after a surgery, she had to sell.

"I looked and look and searched and searched for ages," Slabaugh said. "The way rents have gone up is absolutely insane."

Lucky enough to land one of the affordable units at the Liberty Blvd Apartments, Slabaugh said she loves her 2-bedroom apartment.

"It’s absolutely necessary," Slabaugh said of programs to increase affordable housing availability. "There’s no other way around it."

Connor Prescott, a 25-year-old who moved into an affordable unit at the Liberty Blvd Apartments about a month ago, said he and his girlfriend, Hannah Petersen, pay $633 a month for their one-bedroom apartment.

That’s compared to what they were previously paying to live in a $1,200 two-bedroom with a roommate at a different apartment complex just a few blocks away. Living there, they were living "paycheck to paycheck," he said.

Prescott, a personal trainer, said he and his girlfriend, who is attending the University of Utah, have struggled to find financial security while they sought to begin their careers, but now things are getting easier, and they’re actually able to begin building a savings account.

"It’s a relief to finally be able to enjoy (our life)," Prescott said. "You’re happy to come home. There’s no stress."

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