Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Yalecrest, in Salt Lake City's east side, is a quiet, folksy neighborhood essentially tucked into the picturesque foothills that rise above it.
The neighborhood's meandering streets are peppered with English Tudor and English Cottage single-family homes and pleasing landscapes. It's a slice of the American Dream that's remained intact for so long that it's included in the National Register of Historic Places.
It's also at the center of a new city affordable housing plan that could shake up most of the neighborhood through rezoning.
This possibility is why well over 100 residents piled into the Bonneville Elementary School gymnasium Thursday to voice their opinion on the matter; the majority of the people who showed up appeared to be against the plan.
"It's an issue that's hitting a nerve ending with a lot of people," said Janet Hemming, the chairwoman of the Yalecrest Neighborhood Council. "The bottom line is there's a right way and a wrong way to do affordable housing and this is the wrong way, we believe."
Need for affordable housing plan
Affordable housing is certainly something that is on the minds of Salt Lake City and Utah leaders over the last few years. The median sale price for all homes in Salt Lake City jumped from $259,000 in 2015 to $481,750 in September 2021 — an increase of 86%.
Nigel Swaby, a Salt Lake real estate expert and member of the Fairpark Community Council, said there are many reasons Salt Lake City — and Utah in general — ended up in this situation. While he hears all the time that California, investors, corporations and housing rental tech companies are behind the rising prices, he argues that Utah's high birthing rates, zoning laws and community opposition all play a part, too.
Another issue is the lack of condominiums. This, he said, arose after the Great Recession resulted in thousands of condo foreclosures, likely influencing developers to focus primarily on new apartments over the past decade. The COVID-19 pandemic only added fuel to the affordability fire.
Whatever the cause may be, the spike in housing costs prompted Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to focus on the issue during her State of the City address at the start of the year. The city found itself in need of about 18,000 affordable units at that time. The mayor said the massive shortage is why the city needs to find "creative" solutions to the problem.
Salt Lake City's planning commission then unveiled the draft proposal of a new affordable housing incentives plan last month. It highlights Yalecrest and the neighborhoods surrounding it as one of the major areas of single and two-family parcels, that would be rezoned to larger properties that would essentially double the population in the area.
The plan could result in three or four family-unit homes that are up to three stories high. Since the neighborhood is near a few public transit options, areas closest to 15-minute buses are more likely to be adjusted. There are also 30-year deed restrictions aimed to keep all new construction affordable.
"This is not massive density," Swaby said, quelling residents' questions that the neighborhood may end up like places closer to downtown.
A community reaction
However, several residents still voiced their concerns about what that means for their homes and even the history of the neighborhood put on the historic register in 2007. That listing doesn't guarantee certain historic homes would survive the new code, said Lynn Pershing, the founder of an organization called K.E.E.P. Yalecrest.
She said it is possible to add historic protections to the neighborhood, but that must be approved by the majority of neighborhood residents and then, city leaders. Meanwhile, local attorney and Yalecrest resident Brian Burnett, said he wasn't sure how the city will be able to enforce the deed restrictions that would keep the housing affordable.
Hemming added that the city should also start to factor into water scarcity as it plans to add more housing, too, considering the extreme drought the city is still facing and the uncertainties that climate change poses.
None of the expert speakers brought in were involved in the plan itself or city planners. A Salt Lake City spokesman said the city's planning director sat in on the event to listen to public comments, though city leaders say they weren't invited to participate.
But Hemming said the point of the meeting was to have other experts offer their views of the city plan.
Not everyone at Thursday's meeting was against the plan, either. Atticus Edwards, a 25-year-old who said he has lived his entire life in the neighborhood, brought up Salt Lake City's darker history of having covenants that prohibited minorities from living in the area's single-family homes. Utah is still in the process of removing racist language from old property records across the state.
He caused a small stir in the meeting as he asked what neighborhood residents are willing to do now to help affordable housing given this history.
Yalecrest community leaders say they appreciate the effort to combat soaring housing prices but they don't believe the plan they've seen so far is the answer. Their concerns aren't the result of NIMBYism, Hemming asserts.
"We want to get to 'yes.' We are not obstructionists; we are just trying to be good citizens and point out some of the problems, some of the harm," she said. "We've had hopefully a good discussion together. We can improve it and make it better and (have something) that we can all agree and move forward with it."
What happens next?
The Salt Lake City Planning Commission isn't expected to receive an update on the affordable housing plan until this fall, according to the city's website. The Salt Lake City Council also must vote on it before it goes into effect.
If we don't (speak up) then it's just going to slide through and people are going to find out about it.
–Janet Hemming, chairwoman of the Yalecrest Neighborhood Council
Worries about this process also emerged during the meeting. Burnett said he brought up the proposal to Mendenhall after bumping into her shortly after the plan was produced, alleging that the mayor scoffed at his feelings about the matter.
"She's going to cram this through even though this is representative government," he said, as some gasped and groaned in the audience. "Even though, in my community council, people were overly opposed to it. She's, I think, intending very much to have this go through."
A spokesman for Mendenhall's office wasn't able to confirm the brief meeting but disagreed with the statement, contending the mayor is "certainly supportive and committed to the public input process on these matters," in a statement to KSL.com.
While the city continues to gather feedback on the housing plan, Hemming says she's holding events similar to Thursday's at neighboring community councils in the coming weeks. Her goal is to let residents know about the plan while the city is still in its public comment process — before it's approved by city leaders.
"If we don't (speak up) then it's just going to slide through and people aren't going to find out about it," she said. "We hope there's a lot of modifications. We hope the city listens to its residents."