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Activists want Salt Lake City to halt new development until its gentrification study is done

Gaspar Valencia, his children and his dog stand in front of the house they’ve lived in for eight years.
Emily Means
/
KUER
Gaspar Valencia, his children and his dog stand in front of the house they’ve lived in for eight years.

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Gaspar Valencia has lived in his four-bedroom, one-bathroom house on the west side of Salt Lake City for eight years.

Nowadays, it would be pretty impossible to find a house that size at the price he rents it: $500 a month.

“It really is a great price,” Valencia said via translator.

He lives there with his two children and dog. He’s a single father, and he said he likes the neighborhood because of his kids’ schools.

In early February, he received a notice saying he had 30 days to move out. He said the property owner had previously told him there were plans to build townhomes there, and eventually he’d have to leave, but he said he didn’t know when that day would come.

“It's going to be very difficult to find another place like this where I can find it at the same rent,” he said. “The size of the home and also the ability to be in a place that's private.”

proposed townhome development rendering
SLC Planning Commission
Documents from the Salt Lake City Planning Commission feature a rendering of the townhome development proposed on the west side of Salt Lake City, where Valencia currently rents his home.

Gentrification in Salt Lake City

There’s a lot of development proposed for the city’s west side, especially in the North Temple area. Multiple families were similarly displaced on a nearby block last year.

Salt Lake City is aware there’s an issue. They announced a gentrification study in the fall of 2021, which includes data collection and community engagement. The goal is to prevent involuntary displacement.

“As we work to balance growth and preservation, it’s important for the city to ensure housing choice and equity for all our residents,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said at the time. “We want our residents to be able to stay in the communities they have helped build.”

Angela Price, policy director for Salt Lake City’s Community and Neighborhoods Department, said she’s heard some frustration from people over why the study isn’t done yet.

“It's taking so long because we want to make sure that we're getting it right,” Price said.

Calls for action

Some community activists are calling for action now. The Rose Park Brown Berets, a political organization on the west side of Salt Lake City, want a moratorium on developments that will displace people while the study is completed.

“If they were really intentional about wanting to combat the effects of gentrification, they would use this time to stop all luxury developments,” said Qiru Cantua with the group. “That would show true solidarity with the people.

But Price said a moratorium isn’t possible.

“We legally are not allowed to put a moratorium on development,” she said. “It goes to private property rights. When you buy a piece of property, you have kind of a bundle of rights that come with it. If you're allowed, through a city ordinance, to develop your property, there's not a whole lot that we can do to stop you from doing that.”

According to Jordan Cullimore, lead attorney at the Utah Property Rights Ombudsman Office, the decision really lies with the city council.

Under state code, the council could issue a temporary land use regulation — like a six month moratorium — if they find a good reason to do so.

“The legislative body needs to be convinced that there is a compelling countervailing interest that's going to be jeopardized if they don't put in place this temporary land use regulation,” Cullimore said.

Typically, he said that’s been something like a public safety or health concern. But he said he’s unaware of a strict definition.

“Then it would just be a question of if someone would challenge their determination,” he said. “As someone who works in the industry, it would be something they'd want to think long and hard about before they would pursue, if they were concerned about legal challenges.”

Price said the city has some rental assistance programs, and they’re also considering new zoning to encourage the building of affordable housing. She said it’s important to get a handle on what the problem is before they make any big decisions.

“I think that we don't want to kind of get ahead of our skis on policy because we really want to understand the problem,” she said. “We have a lot of anecdotal evidence. I think we kind of have an idea of what's happening, but we don't want to just start implementing policies and putting resources towards things if it's not actually going to help.”

Meanwhile, Valencia has to be out of his home around March 10. He said he’s looked at similar places where he could probably afford to pay rent, but the initial deposits are a big barrier.

“I wouldn't want others to go through this, with a limited amount of time to try to figure out a new place to live and come up with all this money,” he said. “We all have bills and budgets, and it's difficult.”

Residents can participate online in Salt Lake City’s gentrification study.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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