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SALT LAKE CITY — For an afternoon, the unassuming pavilion nestled in the overgrown grass of Jordan Park was utilized beyond its usual patronage of birthday parties, play dates and joggers passing through.
While the park was dotted with its usual attendees and picnic blankets amid the warming weather on Saturday, the pavilion had temporarily taken on the role of a town hall. The steel picnic tables served as a makeshift bench for Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who seemed to sit comfortably.
A mother of three children, the mayor had likely sat on many benches while her children played. Low-income mothers and their children, members of the advocacy group Powerful Moms Who Care, filled the other benches.
The organization advocates for increased availability of low-income housing for families, as well as accessible and affordable child care, health care, education and job training. And, on Saturday, they discussed a number of those with the mayor, who addressed concerns, but began with an introduction.
“I made some decisions, with confidence, knowing … what we were capable of. We’ve been through a lot since 2020, we all have. But it really opened the ability to do things really differently,” said Mendenhall, a former council member in a district containing Palmer Court.
“To be able to dedicate more than 400% to affordable housing, it made sense. I didn’t have to fight a political battle to get that done, everyone was ready for change,” she continued. “And at the same time, the city stood alone on a lot, for a very long time, for most issues around homelessness.”
In recent years, however, that has changed, said Mendenhall. Former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser was appointed to serve as the first Utah Homeless Service Coordinator. The creation of the state office, with its own leadership, would finally create coordination between state, cities and counties on the statewide issues of homelessness.
“The state is now seeing (itself) as a responsible party for deeply affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, and homeless services, not just in Salt Lake City but in more parts across the state. And, calling other cities to task,” said Mendenhall. “No city can handle a statewide housing and homelessness crisis and Ogden, Salt Lake and St. George have been the concentration center — for the lack of affordable housing services which have been policy decisions all over the state of Utah.”
Investment into affordable and deeply affordable housing have increased in the past couple of years.
In the 2022 legislative session, Niederhauser secured $55 million for affordable and deeply affordable housing — half of which must be spent in Salt Lake County. In addition to those funds, Salt Lake County invested $6 million, which was matched by Salt Lake City with an additional $6 million.
In the most recent session, another $50 million was allocated for deeply affordable housing.
“That is exponentially more than they’ve ever done before. So they’re no longer working against us,” Mendenhall told those gathered at the pavillion. “Our money goes so much further when other cities are also building affordable housing and the state is helping pay for it.”
The funding from the county, city and state has created 430 permanent supportive housing units expected to come online shortly. The first phase of those units began opening last week with the ribbon-cutting of Switchpoint’s project, The Point at Fairpark, which is dedicated to seniors and veterans experiencing homelessness. But the turnaround from funding to housing, hasn’t been as quick as some had hoped.
“There was promising for housing below 30% AMI. Where is that?” asked Melissa Hunt. “They’ve talked about tearing down some homes and I’ve seen that they’ve done that. Why are we tearing down people’s homes? They’ve been established and they have these homes, and we’re tearing them down to build apartment complexes.”
The mayor pointed to the city’s attempts to stabilize existing housing, create zoning changes through an affordable housing overlay and the creation of tiny homes, as well as the tiny home village for the chronically homeless.
Another mother, who sleeps in her vehicle with her child, asked when she could move into one of the 430 units coming online. While The Point at Fairpark has begun to welcome residents, the mother likely doesn’t qualify and the timelines for the other units isn’t exactly clear.
Child care struggles
Top of mind for many of the mothers present was the issue of affordable child care.
“We hear elected officials say, ‘go to work, go to work, go to work,’ which is fine, but if you don’t have child care, that is super hard,” said Deeda Seed.
In a study conducted by the Utah Childcare Cooperate for Powerful Moms Who Care, survey results found that:
- 71% of moms did not have enough food or groceries to meet their family’s needs.
- 39% experienced homelessness.
- 39% were unable to access child care.
- 83% don’t always have the childcare necessary to meet work responsibilities.
- 31% do not have a reliable backup option for when their primary childcare situation fails.
Of those who have not always been able to find necessary care:
- 70% blame the high cost of care.
- 40% couldn’t find anyone to care for their child.
- 33% due to transportation issues.
- 33% care wasn’t available for the times they needed it.
Mendenhall emphasized research indicates that high-quality, affordable early childhood education changes the trajectory of children — from the likelihood of graduation to economic mobility. Two years ago, the mayor proposed $10 million of the remaining American Rescue Plan funds to be allocated to expand Head Start and the Salt Lake City School District’s pre-K program. Ultimately, the Salt Lake City Council decided against it.
“It was really disappointing that the council doesn’t want to fund that,” said Mendenhall, adding the funds will likely go towards 1,500 affordable housing units.
Even with the current Head Start program, transportation to get children to the program can be difficult, one mother said. Another mother pointed to the lack of child care at shelters. But, the mayor’s area of control on a number of things is limited, she admitted to the group.
“People think I control the weather, I don’t. There’s a lot of things I don’t,” said Mendenhall. “I hear you on Head Start, I hear you on the shelter, and all of it is legitimate, but I have only a certain area of control here, and funding. Whatever I can receive relating to the city’s actions and funding, I’m ready to hear it.”
But where her control and funding is limited, Mendenhall calls on coordination and partnerships to fill the gap.
“The cities don’t own or operate any services, but we do participate, like, with the creation of the permanent supportive housing,” Mendenhall said. “While our downtown core does some things, those companies and property owners downtown we don’t do enough compared to what other capital cities are investing. I’m not the only one banging this drum about the need.”