Salt Lake City mayoral candidates spar over their visions on homelessness and housing
Salt Lake City’s closely watched race for mayor took another step toward its conclusion during a live televised debate organized by KUER, PBS Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.
Moderated by Lauren Gustus, the executive editor of the Tribune, the city’s three mayoral candidates — incumbent Erin Mendenhall, former mayor Rocky Anderson and small business owner and activist Michael Valentine — answered questions ranging from how the city should address homelessness and housing affordability to their thoughts on the state-led effort to widen I-15 through the north side of town.
Each candidate was asked to define what success means to them as it relates to addressing the city’s homeless population. According to a 2023 state report, the state’s homeless population has risen every year since 2020.
“Success is getting people into housing, getting treatment,” said Anderson. “Making this place safe for families, businesses and everybody else who lives here, as we do what we need to do for the homeless community.”
For Valentine, the issue is a personal one. He’s made a point in his campaign to talk about his experience of being homeless for a time. To him, “Success is nobody on the streets anymore.”
“We house everybody, and then we stop people from ending up in homelessness,” he said. “I think we can make Salt Lake City one of the first major cities in America to just completely eradicate homelessness and house everybody.”
According to Valentine, that would be accomplished by declaring homelessness an emergency in the city, establishing sanctioned homeless encampments and then connecting people with resources for treatment and housing.
In response, Mendenhall highlighted the need for strong relationships with partners outside of the city — be it surrounding municipalities or the Legislature — in order to properly address the issue.
“No one standing up here is saying that we don't need more shelter and that we don't need more housing,” she said. “We're all in agreement about that. But how it gets done is what this race is about. Can we get the partnerships to actually solve the problems and not do it by ourselves?”
Tensions have run high when it comes to dealing with homelessness this campaign season with all three candidates making it central to their platforms.
During a September forum on the issue, the candidates were interrupted by hecklers who attempted to shout down Mendenhall during her closing remarks.
On housing affordability, the candidates also had differing views on what needs to be done. According to Zillow, the average home price in Salt Lake City is $541,178. A 2022 report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found that since 2020, rents in Salt Lake County have risen by more than at any time in the last two decades.
“I'm actually part of the generation that is being priced out,” said Valentine, who noted he was the only renter among the candidates. “What's going on right now is literally the opposite of what needs to happen … We are subsidizing luxury housing, calling it affordable housing when it actually isn’t.”
Valentine said that the status quo would only lead to higher prices, which would then “[drive] people into homelessness and [drive] people out of the city.”
Anderson agreed, calling housing affordability a “crisis,” and blaming Mendenhall for continuing an “old worn out paradigm” by “getting sucked into the market and saying, ‘we're going to subsidize these for-profit developers, keep shoving their pockets full of millions of city dollars, public money so they can keep building this horrible, mostly unaffordable, mostly architecturally awful apartment buildings throughout our city that aren't going to be affordable to you and your friends and much of your family.’”
Anderson’s alternative would be what he called a non-market housing model, like in Vienna, Austria. It’s where affordable housing would be looked at in the same way as a city’s other infrastructure like libraries, streets and airports.
While the city cannot directly affect the amount at which the city grows, Mendenhall said there are steps it can take to alleviate some pressure off of the struggles.
“We can do something with … land use, which city councils and cities can control, and then around other affordability things like your transportation,” she said. “These are things that the city can actually affect.”
When it comes to non-market housing, she said the math just doesn't work.
“To invest by ourselves, as Mr. Anderson is proposing, would cost us 18 times more to build new units,” the mayor argued. “And on retrofits, it costs about eight times more.”
For Mendenhall, that means working toward a city center that provides a “full experience” for those attending a sporting event or concert.
“People want to be able to have a good time, be out there with their kids, go out for a restaurant before, and maybe go to a bar after, ride your bike home, and then be able to get up in the morning and take that path back into the downtown,” she said. “It invigorates not only the downtown, but the entire state, and we want this.”
Valentine agreed that fostering a vibrant downtown is important, but not at the expense of the people who already live there.
“Growth is important, but what's more important is that we don't push out locals that are here,” he said. “I'm a working class person. I am of a younger generation. We have to grow but keep our city's culture and core.”
Anderson, however, took a different approach. Recounting an experience he had walking to a restaurant on Main Street near 300 South, he brought the conversation back to the homeless issue in the city.
“We're walking over unconscious bodies and it's disgusting,” he said. “It's filthy. People are afraid. There are people I know that say ‘We don't even come downtown to Salt Lake City anymore.’ It has become so degraded. My heart goes out for people who are in need, but you can't just look the other way as this mayor and her police department are doing and allowing such impunity.”
Mendenhall is running for a second term as mayor after taking office in January 2020, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. She previously served as a member of the Salt Lake City Council from 2014-2020.
Anderson, a former two-term mayor of Salt Lake City from 2000-2008, led the city in the runup to and during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Valentine is the youngest candidate in the race at 35 and gained attention following a 2021 public protest against the city’s move to demolish Main Street’s historic Utah Theater — also known as the Pantages Theatre — where he chained himself to the doors. The theater was demolished in 2022 to make way for a to-be-built housing complex.
The race will be the first mayoral election in Salt Lake City’s history to utilize ranked choice voting. The voting method has been adopted by several municipalities across Utah in recent years.
Voters will rank the candidates from most preferred to least preferred. In a three-way race, if no candidate garners over 50% of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes will be eliminated and their votes dispersed among the candidates that were ranked as their second choice candidate to determine a winner.
Ballots will be mailed to voters on Oct. 31. Election day is Nov. 21.