Rally urges action as Salt Lake leaders weigh allowing dorm-style housing

SALT LAKE CITY — Jason Brentner, 39, said he’s a "survivor" — a survivor of opioid addiction, two years of homelessness, and a suicide attempt.

"I guess I’m one of those successful statistics politicians brag about," Brentner said on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building on Tuesday.

But, at the same time, Brentner said he can’t shake his anxiety stemming from what he called the "trauma of homelessness," and he still feels "unsafe," even though he said he’s been living independently in an affordable housing unit near Capitol Hill.

He said he watches police "bombard" people in his building and "neighbors avoid us like we’re monsters." He said he still feels at-risk of losing his housing.

"When did humanity take a back seat to policy, laws and rules?" Brentner said.

His words were met with cheers from a crowd that had gathered on the steps of City Hall ahead of the Salt Lake City Council’s public meeting Tuesday to advocate for "housing justice."

The crowd — made up of housing advocates, homeless advocates, police protestors, and people from minority groups — held signs reading "people over profit" and "we demand affordable housing" while they repeatedly chanted "Housing is a human right."

The rally came before the Salt Lake City Council held a public hearing on an ordinance change to allow more dorm style housing — also known as "single-room occupancy" units — or housing that was once nearly zoned out of existence nationwide after they gained a reputation as "flop houses."

The ordinance change would allow single-room occupancy in more zoning districts throughout the city, including high-density commercial districts. Currently, they’re only allowed along transit corridors, so along 400 South and North Temple.

The City Council didn’t act on the ordinance Tuesday night but is scheduled to vote May 7.

Cristobal Villegas speaks at a Salt Lake City Council meeting at the Salt Lake City and County Building on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Photo: Spenser Heaps, KSL

The rally’s organizer, Cristobal Villegas, said the rally was the launch of a "multi-month" effort to urge city leaders to prioritize not just affordable housing, but also housing "equity." He urged protestors to encourage city leaders to not just implement the single-room occupancy ordinance, but also enact city-wide inclusionary zoning, halt ticketing of people living on the streets, and provide city-funded legal representation for tenants facing eviction.

"We are here to make sure Salt Lake City and the elected and the people who make money off of people just trying to live … make sure they know that we are here, we are organized, we are getting energized," Villegas said. "At the end of the day, housing is a human right."

Villegas told the City Council later Tuesday night that although the single-room occupancy ordinance is a "step in the right direction, it’s not enough."

"So I ask you, what’s the real plan?" Villegas asked the council, calling for more than GrowingSLC, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s housing plan aimed at improving the city’s stock of affordable housing.

The proposed single-room occupancy ordinance comes after Pamela Atkinson, a well-known Utah homelessness advocate, spearheaded a focus group to find ways to fill gaps in Utah’s homeless service system. She has said single-room occupancy housing is a "key element" to help prevent homelessness and offer an alternative to emergency shelter as Utah prepares for the opening of its three new homeless resource centers later this year.

Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for homeless individuals, speaks at a Salt Lake City Council meeting at the Salt Lake City and County Building on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Photo: Spenser Heaps, KSL

Atkinson told the council that because the ordinance includes a provision to require 24/7 on-site property management, the single-room occupancy buildings "will never become flop houses" that were decried in the ’80s and ’90s.

"There will be security, strict visitor policies, strict policies regarding use of drugs and alcohol," Atkinson said, adding that her group estimates a single-room occupancy building could be built for half of the cost of an apartment building.

But critics worry single-room occupancy housing would bring more harm than good. Salt Lake City resident George Chapman said the "closest thing" to single-room occupancy housing is "crime magnet motels."

"SROs are crime magnets," Chapman said. "You shouldn’t even be thinking about them."

June Hiatt, policy director of the Utah Housing Coalition, urged city leaders to fight back against "nimbyism" and to do more than the single-room occupancy ordinance to help fix housing "insecurity" and policies that allow people to live in unjust conditions.

People fill the seats at a Salt Lake City Council meeting, largely to comment on single-room occupancy housing and other affordable housing issues, at the Salt Lake City and County Building on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Photo: Spenser Heaps, KSL

"People are $2 away from paying their heat bill and paying utility bills, and that might land them on the streets," Hiatt said. "In Utah, you can’t choose to not pay your rent if you live in an apartment that’s full of mold. That’s not justice."

The push for more housing solutions came at the steps at a City Hall where city leaders have perhaps done more to increase access to affordable housing than any other city in Utah — something Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who is among nine others running for mayor, hinted at when she addressed the crowd after Tuesday night’s meeting.

"This is the least timid council in Salt Lake City’s history when it comes to affordable housing," she said, noting that the council has allocated more than $21 million to the cause and last year passed a city-wide ordinance allowing accessory dwelling units.

Mendenhall told the crowd their message isn’t "falling on deaf ears," and she called the fact the council is considering an ordinance allowing more single-room occupancy units "a wonderful thing."

"We’re going to keep listening to you," Mendenhall said.


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