Residents of Salt Lake City’s West Side heard from candidates running for mayor about homelessness, affordable housing and environmental justice in a forum that left open the question of how to combat the inequity that the West Side has experienced for years.
“We cannot reverse decades of disinvestment and inequality in just four years. But we have made some great progress,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said at Tuesday’s forum at the Utah State Fairpark organized by the Westside Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake.
Mendenhall, who is running for re-election, cited what she believes are positive steps for Salt Lake City’s west side: the construction of Glendale Regional Park, the UTA On Demand rideshare program and the 25,000 free bus passes for children, teachers and parents.
Attorney Rocky Anderson, who wants to win back the job he held from 2000 to 2008, criticized Mendenhall for not pushing back on projects like the Utah Inland Port and the planned expansion of Interstate 15 – which is expected to lead to more pollution on the West Side , where the air is already worse than on the east side of the city.
“Don’t accept the idea that expanding I-15 is a given. The mayor does,” Anderson said. “She says, ‘Well, if the Legislature wants it, I want a seat at the table.’ That’s what she said when she bowed to the inland harbor.”
Anderson said the city should commit to suing polluters who contribute to particulate matter emissions that disproportionately affect West Side residents.
Mendenhall responded to Anderson regarding the inland port: “It’s a little embarrassing for someone to stand here and tell the West Side that they could have stopped it.” … They fought, we fought, and the option of leaving or constantly closing the state suing doesn’t keep us at the negotiating table.”
Because Salt Lake City is a blue dot in a Republican supermajority state, Mendenhall said the mayor’s job is to produce the best results possible — and not be overrun.
Valentine, known for his unsuccessful campaign to save the century-old Utah Pantages Theater, said he would like to see the Environmental Protection Agency step in to help save the Great Salt Lake. He also expressed frustration with what he called “institutional racism.”
“We talked about the discrepancy between the east and west sides,” Valentine said. “I don’t think the inland port would ever have been built on the east side. It’s a shame.”
What the three candidates agreed on was that Salt Lake City needs to expand public transportation to accommodate growth and reduce pollution.
A constant in Anderson’s campaign has been criticism of Mendenhall’s handling of the city’s homeless problems — for which, he said, everyone is bearing the consequences.
Anderson said the Mendenhall administration betrayed residents and businesses by failing to regulate the city’s homeless encampments by ordering evacuation of the encampments – sometimes called “curtailments” – and last winter was slow to respond when at least five homeless people died on the streets.
“It is time for us to remove the encampments from our city for the good of everyone,” Anderson said, “and provide appropriate sanctioning.” [camp].”
Mendenhall countered that Salt Lake City shouldn’t solve the homelessness problem alone – and said the state and Salt Lake County would invest more in creating affordable housing and get other cities to take on some of the responsibility.
“We cannot continue to be the center of the state’s homelessness crisis,” she said, “and let cities and counties send their residents here because they are not doing enough to support them.”
Mendenhall highlighted Salt Lake City’s efforts to build 600 winter shelters, 50 animal shelters and the city’s small home village. She also said the city added 777 supportive permanent housing units.
These initiatives, Mendenhall said, may not be enough, but they help.
Valentine, who said he has experienced homelessness in his life, advocated for sanctioned camping and a ban on mitigation measures. “From then on, you’re going to take everyone in and actually put them in long-term housing,” he added.
The candidates also presented their ideas for what could help alleviate the challenges of finding affordable housing in Salt Lake City.
Mendenhall said the city’s investment in affordable housing has increased more than 400% to $55 million over the past three and a half years. That spending, she said, “created 4,000 affordable housing units in the city by federal standards.” That included the 777 permanently subsidized housing units created in collaboration with the state, she said.
Anderson argued that many of these projects are inactive.
“Take the hundreds of units we were promised by last April,” Anderson said. “And so many people are on the streets today because of neglect and incompetence.”
Anderson said Salt Lake City should commit to building social housing — and he pointed to programs in cities like Barcelona, Vienna and Singapore.
“We build it up and we can keep interest rates low and take it off the market,” Anderson said. “So rents will not continue to rise at these ridiculous market prices pushed by the developers who have been funded with millions by this government.”
Mendenhall responded that the city is relying on the fact that investment and housing creation is taking place and that developers are helping to finance the buildings.
Using Anderson’s example of Vienna and other European cities, Mendenhall said: “They’ve invested every year since World War II – but what we’re doing in America is the South Bronx.”…What he’s talking about are the projects. We won’t do that. For us, mixed-income housing is the best way to help people succeed.”
Both Anderson and Valentine rejected this idea.
Valentine argued, “There is actually affordable housing in other parts of America. … Rent controls have been in place in New York for decades.”
Valentine said that while growth is inevitable, the city should work to balance historic preservation and new construction. He also argued that the city’s housing subsidies are not affordable for the average citizen.
“The Redevelopment Agency doesn’t build housing for actual community members,” Valentine said. “They use it as a store of dollars to drive down housing costs by subsidizing luxury housing. There are luxury apartments. There are million dollar houses. There is nothing in between.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes for The Salt Lake Tribune about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Your donation, in addition to our RFA grant, will help ensure she continues to write stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking Here.