Salt Lake City mayor focuses on affordable housing, air quality in State of the City address

The first half of Erin Mendenhall's term as Salt Lake City mayor produced all sorts of crises beyond her control.

The COVID-19 pandemic reached Utah in earnest just two months into the term, and there was a major earthquake and a damaging windstorm during that first year. Salt Lake City wasn't immune to global supply employee shortages last year, either.

Now, as she heads into the second half of the term, she's setting her sights on continuing to address ongoing and looming crises she can help control. The mayor delivered her 2022 State of the City address Tuesday, where issues like affordable housing and air quality took center stage as the city grows to population levels it has never experienced before.

"Complexity cannot be a justification for timidity," Mendenhall said, speaking from the hallway outside of her office in the Salt Lake City-County Building. "Having so many factors beyond our control requires not only boldness and ambition but also creativity and resilience."

Affordable housing

The mayor chided state policies regarding housing affordability during the speech. For instance, she pointed to a state law that prohibits cities from enacting rent control or setting living wage standards, adding that she believes the state's $7.25 minimum wage is "embarrassingly" and "inhumanely" low. The median home value in Salt Lake City has skyrocketed from $235,000 to $500,000 since the state's minimum wage was last increased 13 years ago.

All these, and rapid growth, have factored in a shortage of over 18,000 affordable units in the city.

Given all that, she said it's the city's job to "be creative" and find ways to lower the cost of living in the city while not breaking current state law — or, as she put it bluntly, "inviting new state laws that punish every city because we dared to try."

The city has invested in more affordable housing projects, as well as finding ways to cut other costs of living, such as transportation. The city invested in 345 new affordable units last year and 735 affordable units in the coming years.

"What do we do when so many of the levers working against us are outside of our control? We certainly don't just give up and accept it. People are struggling," she said. "Neighbors are losing their homes and being forced out of the city or even onto the streets. We can't give up."

Homelessness

Housing carried her into the state's response on homelessness, arguing the state needs to step up and address a "statewide humanitarian crisis." She argues that it's not sustainable for Salt Lake City taxpayers if the city has to address the issue on its own.

That's why the mayor applauded Gov. Spencer Cox for including $20 million toward a tiny homes project for the homeless and affordable housing in his proposed 2023 budget, and urged legislators to follow through with the request during the current legislative session.

Air quality and environment

As for air quality, Mendenhall reflected on her journey to office, which started about 15 years ago after giving birth to her son, Cash.

A radio report on the growing health issues tied to air quality prompted her to get a master's degree in science and technology, and to co-found the group Breathe Utah. She also decided to enter politics as she sought solutions to the region's air quality problems.

Over a decade later, air quality is still a prominent issue for the city. But through all the chaos over the past two years, the mayor said the administration has worked hard to make "historic progress" in an ongoing fight to improve air quality in Salt Lake City and the region.

The mayor announced that Salt Lake City is on pace to make it possible for residents to "eliminate" dependence on fossil fuels by 2030, joining 14 other local governments and Rocky Mountain Power to form a new cooperative agency that will bring "net-100% renewable electricity to our entire community" in the coming years.

An 80-megawatt solar farm in Tooele County that will provide electricity to the city and some other surrounding communities.

The city plans to plant another 1,000 trees during the year, matching efforts the past two years. She said the trees planted so far will eventually grow to produce a half-million pounds of new oxygen and remove 20,000 pounds of pollution annually. So far, those trees have been planted on the city's west side, which traditionally has worse levels of air quality in addition to economic disparity.

"They'll do it in the neighborhoods that need it the most. These trees are not only a tool for environmental progress but for environmental justice," she said. "While we do the work of addressing equity across the board, we are also planting the roots of a more equitable Salt Lake City with each tree that goes in the ground."

The city will continue to enforce its sustainability policy for new buildings that receive city funding. The mayor also urged drivers to switch to electric vehicles and for people to use public transit more, during her speech.

The timing of the address aligned perfectly, as she helped push the Utah Transit Authority to drop fares for next month, which was announced earlier in the day. The city is currently in talks with UTA to make a Salt Lake City International Airport ticket count as UTA fare, making a current promotion that's about to expire permanent.

That's on top of a program called Tickets for Transit, where tickets for Utah Jazz or Eccles Theater events also double as transit fare.

Speaking to that, she pointed to research from the University of Utah that found a significant drop in air pollution during the early days of the pandemic as the number of cars traveling on the Wasatch Front dropped.

Crime and public safety

The mayor also addressed public safety, following a year where overall citywide crime fell but citywide violent crime rose. She said it's her goal for Salt Lake City to lead the state in public safety, which can be done by giving the police department "the resources it needs."

The city implemented a new crime control plan, which helped drive down crime significantly. Citywide crime spiked to 26% above the recent average by March 2021 but dropped to nearly 6% below average by the end of the year. Call diversion, a police-civilian response team and other programs and partnerships helped drive down crime quickly, the mayor said.

The average response time for police also fell from 17 minutes, 34 seconds in August to 10 minutes, 46 seconds by December, according to the city.

COVID-19 response

The mayor ended her message by talking about the issue that's defined her time in office based on timing alone: COVID-19. Tuesday's address came just a few days after the state legislature's recent striking down of the county's mask mandate, which Mendenhall had pushed the county for before it was put in place.

The mayor said the city's goal has been to "navigate a balance between public safety and personal responsibility," which she said has been rewarded "for the most part." That's why she urged people to listen to public health experts and get vaccinated or get a booster dose, and wear masks indoors even if the mandate has been overturned.

While the issue has turned into a political issue, she urged people to continue to be kind to one another and share compassion.

"Sometimes it's hard to power through the exhaustion. It's hard to see past the vitriol and the condescension on social media. It's hard to see leaders in the Capitol sitting back instead of stepping up," she said. "It's hard to look at the encampments in our public spaces and see the individual people who are struggling.

"It's hard to look at our dangerously low vaccination rates and find compassion for those who are scared or who believe the misinformation they have been fed," she added. "Masked, unmasked, vaccinated, unvaccinated, house and house-less, activist and elected — we are all Salt Lakers. ... Keep your hearts open and your eyes focused on the road ahead."