SALT LAKE CITY — Mayor Erin Mendenhall laid out plans Tuesday that she said will help narrow deep divides in the capital city hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
In her State of the City address, the first-term mayor proposed setting limits to help Salt Lake City renters afford security deposits, called a series of 2020 police reforms "just the beginning," and called on state leaders to take a greater role in addressing homelessness.
Mendenhall said the combination of the deadly virus, the March earthquake and the September windstorm illuminated "stunning gaps" in income, race and geography across the city, "adding new urgency to the work of closing them."
"Instead of Salt Lake City getting back to normal and recreating what once was, we are seizing this opportunity and striving to make our city better through positive, cooperative change — to come out of this pandemic stronger, more resilient, more equitable and more just than before," she said.
The mayor began her speech with a moment of silence for those lost to the pandemic, including 1,613 Utahns and more than 423,000 nationwide. COVID-19 has affected the entire city, but has devastated neighborhoods on its west side, home to many large families and essential workers who didn't have the option to work from home.
The events of the year overshadowed existing issues faced by the city of 200,000 residents, but housing, homelessness and air pollution remain urgent problems, the mayor said.
She noted Salt Lake City opened an overflow shelter in December like it had a year earlier, and said tiny homes may prove a successful step like they have in other states. But the "humanitarian crisis" of homelessness calls for broader, long-term solutions, including those tied to mental health and substance abuse, she said.
"It is time for the state government to step up," an emphatic Mendenhall said. "It is time for other cities and towns in Utah to step up."
She's urging state leaders to appoint an official to oversee initiatives on homelessness, among other changes recommended in a 2020 state study, she told the Deseret News after her speech.
The mayor said she's proud of 2020 police reforms that boosted body camera and deescalation requirements for officers — changes she said will make the city safer for everyone, including the officers.
She didn't propose further reforms Tuesday but noted the city's Commission on Racial Equity in Policing, formed last year, is at work crafting recommendations.
In the chaos of last year, the mayor said she's proud of the way city employees adapted to the pandemic and worked quickly to connect businesses, laid-off restaurant workers and renters to financial assistance that helped keep them afloat. Her employees also created popup Wi-Fi spots and channeled more than $9 million to rental and mortgage payments and will continue to parcel out more rent help money, Mendenhall said.
In responding to the natural disasters, city employees fielded a record number of 911 calls following the earthquake on March 18 and raced to clean up 8,000 tons of debris following the September storm that felled trees across northern Utah and knocked out power for days in some communities, she said.
To address Salt Lake's housing crunch, the mayor proposed closing what she said are loopholes in a program to replace low-income apartments lost to new projects, and said the city will continue studying ways to soften the effects of gentrification. She's also calling for a renter's choice ordinance. Versions in other cities have capped deposits at a certain percentage of monthly rent and allowed renters to pay the fee in installments.
"I am determined to reshape the growth of our city in a way that benefits everyone, from every neighborhood," Mendenhall said. "It's not going to be easy, or quick, but it's important we make every effort to grow equitably."
Within city government, she's directing leaders of each department to consider equity and inclusion in their hiring decisions and budgets.
Mendenhall also forecast a new effort to grow high-quality jobs in the biotechnology industry for those already living in the city. Meanwhile, an apprenticeship program is helping people train for work in trades, she said.
In another technology-focused move, a new innovation department will focus on helping improve gaps in digital access and create "a culture of innovation" within city government, she said.
When it comes to air pollution, Mendenhall said aggressive action is needed "to end the epidemic of emissions in the Salt Lake Valley," not just to improve air quality in the city but to ease the global effects of climate change.
With fewer city employees commuting in the last year, the city cut down energy use by 0.08%, Mendenhall said. She plans to allow city employees the option of working from home at times in a hybrid model.
In a self-assessment released a day before her speech, Mendenhall acknowledged that her office hasn't met certain goals it had set out to tackle before the pandemic, including a requirement for new city buildings to curb emissions by 2023, now a priority for this year.
The city did, however, meet its goal of planting over 1,000 trees in west side neighborhoods, plus more than 1,200 downed in the September storm.
Mendenhall urged unity following the conclusion of Donald Trump's presidency and amid the frustration and isolation of the pandemic, warning people not to give in to cynicism.
"Today it is our responsibility to move forward, to honor the memories of those we've lost by building a city that would make them proud," she said.
Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Amy Fowler said the mayor's priorities reflect the council's own efforts in recent years, coupled with a focus on disparities laid bare by the pandemic.
"It's awesome to see that she is continuing that hard work forward," Fowler said, describing Mendenhall as "really encapsulating what I believe the values of Salt Lake City are."
Councilman Darin Mano said he wants to be sure the city relies closely on the police equity commission in the future and that the department mirrors the diversity of the neighborhoods it serves.
But he's also eager to resume city discussions that were taking place prior to 2020, including those about redesigning neighborhoods across the city to make everyone feel safe and welcome.