When Solstice Harris heard from a friend of a friend about an available 3,000-square-foot studio apartment in the Utah capital, she jumped.
The 24-year-old filmmaker said she’s long wanted to move to downtown Salt Lake City — one of the safer places in the state, she said, for someone who is LGBTQ. And after an extended search for one — well, anywhere — in the city’s tight housing market that was affordable for her budget, Harris said, “I had no choice but to take it.”
She lives alone in a windowless basement studio near South Temple and 800 East, one of three living quarters in an office building. Your unit has an ensuite bathroom, but it’s located across a public hallway, one of several quirks of living in a space slightly larger than a typical one-car garage.
For example, Harris is a skateboarder and when she’s not hitting the city streets, she stashes her longboards on her studio walls for decoration. An avid cyclist, she struggled to buy a second bike because she didn’t have space to park. Starting a new hobby is out of the question for the time being due to the space requirement.
Her small apartment “forces me to rigorously evaluate everything I bring into my home,” the former Utah County resident said. “In the end you live as a minimalist. It can be annoying, but admittedly it creates positive habits that help me avoid clutter.
“I really believe,” she said, “that you grow by the size of the space you live in.”
Harris also misses the sunlight streaming in through her windows, but at $550 a month, she said, the studio fits her finances and lets her pursue the lifestyle she wants. “It was a small miracle,” she added, “and I couldn’t afford more. If I hadn’t come across this apartment, I might still be living on the outskirts or with roommates.”
In many cases, the current housing crisis is leading some who want to live in Salt Lake City, especially young people, to consider lofts, small studios, basements, so-called micro-units and other less conventional living spaces to gain a foothold in the city, without taking in a roommate.
Once a bastion of single-family homes, the city is in the midst of a massive housing boom skewed toward studios and one-bedroom units. It has also been trying for years to get more residents to add annexes to their homes to increase the number of affordable housing options, especially for students.
Now, a series of zoning changes being worked out at City Hall could further shift the city’s housing mix in some areas towards more micro-apartments, studios, duplexes, townhouses, townhouses, backyard homes and other types of units that make up what often is is referred to as “missing middle”.
It’s unclear if the guidelines will directly result in more tiny housing situations popping up across the city, but some residents are concerned.
The new living concept of the city
As prevailing rents and home prices continue to soar amid the housing shortage, Salt Lake City has proposed a number of new incentives for homebuilders to encourage construction of additional affordable housing and a greater variety of housing types in some commercial and mixed-use areas. Zones of use and in residential areas that were long reserved for single-family homes.
The incentives, formerly known as the city’s affordable housing overlay, aim to lower regulatory barriers and attract more infill and redevelopment in existing neighborhoods. Specifically, the zoning changes for rental housing and housing for sale would:
• Allow townhouses, three- and four-unit buildings and clusters of townhouses and cottage developments on lots currently zoned for single or two-family homes only if they are within a quarter mile of public transportation or adjacent to arterial roads .
• Allow prospective developers to add between one and three stories to their apartment complexes in areas where multi-family dwellings or the mix of commercial and residential buildings are already permitted.
• Relaxing some density rules in the city’s multifamily neighborhoods while reducing requirements for side and backyards.
• Waiver some requirements and add eligible housing types in specific commercial, business, and institutional zones, such as: B. The Gateway and the Trolley Square and Brickyard areas.
• Reduce on-street parking requirements to one space per new dwelling in some cases.
The proposed incentives are also designed to be voluntary given the strong provisions of state law against requiring so-called “inclusive zoning”. So rather than mandating a percentage of affordable housing in a given project, this approach would mean that if developers agree to take advantage of the new permitted density, additional building height, relaxed parking rules, or expedited project approval under the changes, a Share of affordable units in what they build.
Up to 20% or more of the resulting housing would then be deeded to keep them financially accessible to someone earning about 80% of the city’s median income — though the city is considering easing those income requirements after a round of public contributions reduce.
The changes, which have been in the works for nearly two years, are now being modified, with potential for city council approval in the fall. The ideas have already drawn opposition from some homeowners who are suspicious of the potential impact on their neighborhoods and from those who argue that income standards are too high for prospective renters.
Is smaller better?
Residential redevelopment helped create Riley Finnegan’s new tiny condominium loft just north of Pioneer Park — with a developer’s 2015 redevelopment of an old industrial building, supported by $4.5 million in city loans .
“I like to tell people I used to live like a farmer,” said Finnegan, a 27-year-old college student, of her years of skimping to afford her 4,000-square-foot apartment in the upscale condominium.
“I also realized that my financial situation would naturally lead to buying a smaller space,” she said, “and I was happy with that.
“It’s the perfect size for me,” Finnegan said, describing the contemporary loft as “small but with a lot of vertical space. I live downtown in an amazing place and close to cool and fun places – and I can still afford it!”
Such arrangements aren’t for everyone, and the city’s proposed housing incentives have drawn criticism from some who fear they will fuel the trend towards ever smaller units. They are concerned about the city’s approach to “shared apartments,” in which tenants in smaller neighborhoods share common facilities like bathrooms or kitchens.
The city has been considering a separate housing regulation that would change its definition of shared accommodation ����, formerly known as “single room occupancy” or SRO, housing. If this continues, the change in definition would, in effect, allow housing with a “rooming house” approach in many of the city’s existing zones in one fell swoop.
The initial approval of a condominium project, the Bueno Avenue Apartments at 129 S. 700 East, drew angry opposition from advocates for the city’s renters last December. Although boarding houses were a common form of housing generations ago, activists claim that the creation of such housing today borders on exploitation and reduces the quality of life for residents.
Her opposition has spilled over into the latest housing incentives, which, although manufactured separately, lead some members of a group called Wasatch Tenants United to fear they could ultimately be “a Trojan horse” to reduce housing unit sizes and housing amenities to reduce.
“We will not go back to living like our ancestors, like rats,” said one group member at a recent public hearing. “We will not live like this.”
Dylan Stoddard, an organizer from Wasatch Tenants United, said members believe the city is shaping its basic definition of affordable housing with the incentives for years to come – and the group wants to make sure that doesn’t end up encouraging more residential communities .
“We’re not Manhattan,” Stoddard said. “There are many places to rent and build, but the problem is affordability. It’s not like they’re being forced to build these small, incredibly dense spaces. It’s a choice.”
Salt Lake City Planning Director Nick Norris said minimum sizes for housing units are determined by building codes and issues such as physical access to the home, not zoning. The latest affordable housing incentives, Norris said, don’t directly address proposed apartment sizes — though in some cases they limit the mix of units under 500 square feet that some housing developments may include.
That’s to maximize choices, Norris said, rather than prohibiting building smaller. Shared apartments, he said, are “no different than someone renting their house and finding a roommate.”
Given the city’s growing residential population and changing demographics, he said, “We’re seeing a lot of these studios and micro-units being built, and there’s clearly some need for units of this size.” Several city council members have noticed the pattern downtown and are trying to shape city policy to attract more multi-bedroom apartments to better accommodate families.
The latest incentives, Norris said, seek to encourage a variety of housing types and sizes in each neighborhood where possible.
“I would imagine that as a city we would have a discussion about housing mix so that a neighborhood isn’t just micro-units,” he said, “and there are other options.”