Utah’s capital city is already on the rise, but now city officials are close to adopting a new housing plan that calls for thousands more housing units to be added over the next five years as they try to balance out demand and housing affordability.

The plan, which the Salt Lake City Department of Community and Neighborhoods released earlier this year, outlines a “bold response" to the city’s “current housing crisis,” department officials wrote. Their top goal is to close a gap of 5,500 units of deeply affordable housing, identified as residents who make 30% of the county's area median income or less.

That’s why the proposed plan calls on the city to entitle 10,000 new housing units throughout the city over the next five years, with at least 2,000 of those being set aside for deeply affordable and another 2,000 or more set aside for affordable housing, for people making 31% to 80% of the area median income.

It wouldn’t solve the problem but would chip away at the deficit, said Ruedigar Matthes, policy and program manager for Salt Lake City's Community and Neighborhoods, as he met with members of the Salt Lake City Council last week. He explained that the department wants to expand housing options across the board, so it's easier for residents who need affordable housing to get it.

“Because there's greater housing choice, the higher your income goes — we want to create more housing choices at kind of the lower-income scale so that households can have their needs met,” he told the council during a work session meeting last week. “That will help filter things up and (broaden the base).”

The five-year plan also seeks to increase housing stability throughout the city by assisting 10,000 low-income households annually in various ways. These could include dedicated programs that "mitigate displacement, serve renter households, serve family households and increase geographic equity and increase physical accessibility," according to a memo to the Salt Lake City Council.

The department would also track and analyze housing stability issues — people who have trouble paying rent or people who frequently move because of housing affordability — as a part of this goal.

The plan’s third and final goal is to “build equitable and fair housing,” through about 1,000 homeownership opportunities for low- to-moderate-income households. Department officials said the plan was crafted over the past year with help from various departments and feedback from more than 6,500 residents, 45% of whom are renters who shared their housing experiences in the city.

The City Council is currently slated to hold one last public hearing on the plan next week before the council is tentatively scheduled to vote on it in June.

Salt Lake’s housing struggles

Salt Lake City is growing at a fairly high rate. The Census Bureau estimated that it gained 3,492 residents between July 2021 and July 2022, making it Utah’s fifth fastest-growing city of 50,000 residents or more last year.

The census estimates the city’s population is now a little more than 204,000 residents, while the city estimates it is more than 210,000. Either way, there are more people living in Salt Lake City now than ever before. City housing officials also project that the city will gain more than 6,000 new residents over the next five years as it continues to grow, according to the proposed housing plan.

The Astra Tower luxury apartments building, pictured Tuesday, is under construction in Salt Lake City. It is one of several housing projects that will add to the city's housing stock in the next five years.
The Astra Tower luxury apartments building, pictured Tuesday, is under construction in Salt Lake City. It is one of several housing projects that will add to the city's housing stock in the next five years. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

This ongoing growth has kept vacancy rates at record lows even with new construction, which results in higher housing costs not just for homeowners but for renters. Per the city's housing dashboard, the vacancy rate is currently 3% for the more than 43,000 rental units in Salt Lake City. The median rent is $1,021.

The five-year plan lists low rental vacancy rates and high home prices as one of six key findings when it comes to the city's housing situation. The department's other key findings are:

  • There's a shortage of overall housing supply despite "a housing construction boom." This is especially true for affordable and deeply affordable housing units.
  • Most Salt Lake City residents are renters, and half of all renters are cost-burdened — meaning that more than 30% of their income is spent on housing costs.
  • Residents surveyed said they prefer more affordable and behavioral health services than additional emergency shelters and homeless resource centers as a solution to homeless issues.
  • There is a "mismatch" in terms of the types of housing available on the market. Residents say many new apartment complexes are seen as "luxury" and there are not enough affordable, "middle" or family-sized housing options available.
  • Wages aren't keeping up with the cost of living, which is helping make more residents cost-burdened.

The city’s housing dashboard notes there are now more than 8,200 affordable housing units in the city and nearly 3,800 more on the way. Matthes said he believes the city is in a better spot than in 2019 when it comes to affordable housing, but what's in the pipeline is still not enough to handle the growing demand for affordable housing right now.

“I think at all levels of affordability we've made some progress. That said ... it’s a tricky number,” he said, explaining to the council that there are many variables that make it difficult to track affordability, especially when people may move in and out of the city.

Apartment housing construction in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 30, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Chipping away at the problem

The department writes that "significant progress" can be made over the next five years, especially if it can reach all three primary goals outlined in the plan. The document doesn't only take into account city feedback but also new rules outlined by the Utah Legislature.

Angela Price, the policy director for Salt Lake City's Community and Neighborhoods, explained to the council that the city was already working on an update to its housing plan when the Legislature passed new regulations over the past two years regarding housing plans, forcing the department to do some "pivoting."

The state now requires cities to use at least five of the 24 affordable housing strategies it outlined in order to receive state funds, or six to be eligible for "priority consideration." Salt Lake city's plan includes 18 of these, Price said. These include developing and adopting a station area plan, amending land use regulations to allow for higher density, amending land use regulations to eliminate or reduce parking requirements at housing developments, and creating a housing and transit reinvestment zone.

It appears those who have had something to say about the plan are split on it. Matthes said there was a bit of a "mixed bag" of reactions when the department held a 45-day public comment window earlier this year.

About 51% of a little more than 100 residents offered a favorable response to the plan, while another 10% were neutral on it, according to Matthes. But he said the period did allow some minor tweaks to the plan, such as adding provisions tied to physical accessibility and adjusting the language in the document so it's easier to understand.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on the plan during its meeting Tuesday evening before it may vote on the matter as early as June 13.

Meanwhile, some members of the council expressed concerns that the state's requirements aren't doing enough to address the issue at the moment. Salt Lake City Council Chairman Darin Mano added that while he appreciates the city's “lofty goal,” he also doesn't see the plan as the end of affordable housing concerns in the city.

“It clearly doesn't solve the problem in five years,” he said. “This is incredibly important and I’m sad that we can’t get to 100% of the need faster, so we’ve just got to move as quickly as we can on housing.”