SLC clears new rules for housing infill, row houses, cottages and other smaller homes

07 December, 2023

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The neighborhood north of Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. After years of debate, the Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday passed a new package of incentives for affordable housing in a move one member called "monumental."

After years of wrangling over it, Salt Lake City has adopted a new package of incentives for affordable housing that allows added density across the city, including in neighborhoods previously limited to single-family homes.

The incentives aim to promote infill and more so-called missing middle housing by letting property owners build more dwellings per acre, add height and see expedited review at City Hall in exchange for guarantees some of the units they build will be affordable to residents with lower incomes.

The Salt Lake City Council passed the incentives late Tuesday in a 6-1 vote, with member Dan Dugan — whose east side district has chafed mightily over the measure — casting the lone vote against them.

Others referred to passage of the incentives — first proposed more than four years ago under Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s predecessor, Jackie Biskupski — as a major accomplishment as Utah’s capital reels from a dire shortage of affordable homes.

“It’s a big deal for the future of the city,” said council member Alejandro Puy. “We stayed aboveboard, even though some people in the community were demonizing density and scaring us about this ... Density is not a bad word.”

Added member Ana Valdemoros: “This is monumental for Salt Lake City.”

Council chair Darin Mano said “mountains were moved” to get the ordinance passed this year, along with the city’s Thriving in Place ordinance aimed at reducing displacement and gentrification citywide.

“Passing this,” Mano said, “was one of my biggest goals.”

A Salt Lake City group supporting new housing commended the ordinance’s passage, saying Wednesday that the measure also addressed some long-standing inequities stemming from a legacy of exclusionary policies on housing. The ordinance, the group said, is something residents should celebrate.

“While the incentives will not themselves solve the housing affordability crisis,” SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors said in a statement, “they are an important step in creating opportunity in every neighborhood.”

Striking more than one balance

It’s an open question, at least for now, as to how big a dent these incentives will make short-term in easing the city’s housing crisis, with interest rates and the cost of land and construction materials all running relatively high. The new ordinance also requires regular reporting from city staff for how many property owners take advantage of the incentives — and how.

Dugan, who just weeks ago fought off two election opponents focused on housing density, also praised council colleagues and city staff for their work in massaging the incentives, particularly to better promote the prospect of homeownership.

“It’s vital for a healthy city and vital for all communities to have homeownership,” said Dugan, who added, “I think it’s a good ordinance.”

But he said while additional duplexes were fine, he could not support permitting three- and four-plex dwellings in the city’s single-family zones — a major sticking point with some residents and community council leaders in his District 6.

“I just don’t have a definitive answer on that,” said Dugan.

The new incentives alter existing zoning rules for most of the city’s residential, mixed-use and commercial areas, essentially upping the number of allowed units, boosting permitted height and introducing new and smaller home designs with a view to making more out of limited available land.

The changes would also streamline permit review while also removing some density rules for zones where multifamily construction is already allowed, known as RMF districts.

City Planning Director Nick Norris has said the incentives are primarily aimed at helping developers of affordable housing by giving them an edge over market-rate builders in terms of what is allowed on their acreage.

But the city is also anticipating the incentives will entice additional infill construction on a smaller scale in existing neighborhoods. The ordinance includes new design guidelines for home types such as cottages and row houses.

Housing variety and renters

At the urging of council member Chris Wharton, the council also initiated work on a new ordinance intended to protect existing homeowners from damage to their properties from new home construction nearby

“I know a lot of people are afraid about what changes this might mean for their neighborhoods,” said Wharton. He told concerned residents to spend time in his District 3, which spans portions of the Marmalade district and The Avenues and a notable variety of housing.

“Single-family homes next to apartments next to condos next to townhouses next to historic mansions,” Wharton said. “You can have a neighborhood that has all of that and still has, you know, little stores and shops and restaurants that you can walk to.”

The new incentives, he added, would create “a similar and better result” in promoting housing diversity and mixed-income neighborhoods elsewhere in the city.

Tuesday’s passage also prompted full-throated support from several council members on behalf of residents who rent their homes and now outnumber homeowners in many corners of the city.

In several public hearings, community council leaders from the city’s east side decried the prospect of bringing more renters into existing enclaves of single-family homes dominated by homeowners. And at Dugan’s behest, some of the incentives were adjusted to add advantages for those building affordable homes for sale.

Council member Victoria Petro said the city’s debate on the incentives — spread over a half-dozen working discussions and public hearings this year alone — demonstrated that “we can have these conversations without demonizing renters.”

“Renters are not a sub-par portion of our citizenry,” Petro said in response to claims those who rent tend to be less engaged or invested in their neighborhoods and communities.

“This simply cannot stand,” Petro said, “and we must eliminate it — constituents and policymakers alike — from our vocabulary.”

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