For more than 8,000 low-income Salt Lake City residents, it’s nearly impossible to find housing that doesn’t devour their paychecks. One-quarter of the city’s renter population pays more than half of their income on rent.
“I think that number is scary,” says Michael Ackerlow, the city’s director of housing and neighborhood redevelopment. “When you add transportation costs and healthcare, pretty soon you don’t have the room for basic necessities.”
As is the case in many urban areas across the country, Salt Lake’s home prices are skyrocketing. Between 2000 and 2011, median home values were up 47 percent, jumping from $153,300 to $225,600. Only 20 percent of renters are able to afford to buy homes at that price.
In order to ease the housing cost burden, Mayor Ralph Becker announced last week the 5,000 Doors Initiative — a five-year plan for the creation or preservation of 5,000 affordable housing units across the city. The initiative seeks to make 2,500 of the units available to low-income renters and 2,500 units for homebuyers.
“We felt that based on the history of what we’ve done, what we reasonably think we can push ourselves to do and the funding sources available, we thought that 5,000 was a good, ambitious number that could be achieved,” says Ackerlow. Salt Lake’s population is 186,440 and is projected to grow 13 percent by 2020.
Half of the units to be developed will target the city’s low-income population, including seniors, people with disabilities and others living on fixed incomes. Ackerlow explains that much of the existing affordable housing projects in the city are concentrated in the central city and on the West Side in places like Glendale and Poplar Grove. He’s hoping that the initiative will generate commitment for the creation of housing that’s more evenly dispersed.
Making a splash with a catchy project name and a sleek website are critical components of the 5,000 Doors Initiative’s outreach effort. Many of the Mayor’s partners in this — financial institutions, housing developers and community groups — were already a part of the city’s housing task force, but others needed stronger messaging. “At the press conference, I had a couple of developers who do affordable housing approach me and talk about what they are doing and how they can help.” Ackerlow says. “And that’s a big part of what this initiative is for. The goal is a number we have to reach collaboratively.”
Funding for the initiative will be coming from a variety of sources. For preserving existing housing, the city has a rehabilitation program that already helps 110 to 130 low- and moderate-income homeowners get low-interest loans. It will also be encouraging the use of low-income housing tax credits and state and local housing trust funds. Even so, Ackerlow doesn’t want to rely on the typical housing subsidy sources.
“When we look at federal funds going down and voucher and tax programs in jeopardy, we have to be creative,” he says. “We have to work closely with our [Community Reinvestment Act] institutions, talking with them about how to get more funding that way. We have to talk with housing advocates here and ask them about how to get more money from the state.”
The 5,000 Doors Initiative is a jumping-off point not only to create a citywide conversation about affordable housing, but visioning the future of housing in Salt Lake City in general. Inclusionary zoning might be on the table, as well as other incentives for developers to create mixed-income housing. Becker’s administration plans to work closely with City Council to create a housing plan that builds on comprehensive housing policy the city adopted in 2012.
“What we want to help developers understand is that you can do mixed-income housing in all areas of the city,” says Ackerlow, “and make it work and have a product that looks really good and is high-quality and brings diversity to all neighborhoods. This is what creates a healthy community.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.