Mayor’s proposal not to build new homeless shelters ends up with Planning Commission, which says ‘Not without a plan’

Under a ticking clock of the city’s six-month moratorium on all new homeless shelters announced by Mayor Erin Mendenhall in October, the planning commission last week heard the administration’s case for the next step in its zoning ordinance revisions related to homeless shelters and homeless resource centers.

Things were not going well for the mayor’s request. In a 7-1 vote, the commission forwarded a negative recommendation to City Council on a proposal that would require a zoning change for all new overnight accommodation that is not considered “temporary”.

Homeless service providers testified to the difficulties the new restrictions would create for their operations, growth and fundraising.

Planning director Nick Norris told the commission: “We don’t want to be an obstacle to that. But we feel we need to make some changes.”

The city is acting in response to the state of Utah‘s August 2021 attempt to establish an overnight shelter in the Ballpark neighborhood at 252 W. Brooklyn Ave (1025 S.)—the location pictured above, a detox facility operated by Volunteers of America.

Proposed Zone Changes

Currently allowed only in the CG General Commercial, D-2 and D-3 Downtown zoning districts, the administration is asking the City Council to remove homeless shelters and homeless resource centers as conditional or allowable uses in all city zones. These are “permanent” shelters in the sense that they are allowed to operate year-round.

CG zones abound in the Ballpark district, where a shelter was proposed in August and spurred the mayor’s moratorium in October.

“This should not be a permanent ban,” explains the administration. “Rather, it is a necessary step in finding an equitable process for locating these facilities in Salt Lake City that considers the welfare of homeless people, residents and nearby business owners, and the equitable housing of these facilities in the region.”

The Geraldine King Women’s Center, 131 E 700 S in the Central City neighborhood. Boulders have been placed by the city in the park strip near the resource center. It is one of two new shelters being built following the closure of the Road Home at 200 S and Rio Grande St. Photos by Luke Garrott.

The mayor proposes removing the usages from the code and then creating a new “homeless resource overlay” zone for homeless shelters. The catch is that the overlay would only apply to existing accommodations. Any new accommodation would need to apply for a zone map change to be included in the overlay.

That would leave discretion for the location of new “permanent” housing in the hands of the city council.

Before this overburden zone is created, existing shelters would become non-compliant uses – a legal use that can continue as long as it is not interrupted for more than 6 months.

The mayor is also proposing a new category for temporary overflow shelters in the law. They would operate for no more than six months of the year from October to April and would be determined by mayoral emergency orders.

New “temporary” accommodations would be permitted in “every zone district where motels/hotels and government-owned institutional buildings are permitted.” By BSL census, these zones are CB Community Business, CG General Commercial, CC Commercial Corridor, CSHBD Sugar House Business District Core, all TSA Transit Station Area zones, M-1 Light Manufacturing, all D Downtown zones, and G-MU Gateway Mixed use.

There is currently no limit to how many total or consecutive years an emergency shelter may be in the same location.

Public Comment

This sparked a reaction from neighborhood advocates who fear makeshift shelters will become permanent winter after winter. Local council leaders across the city signed a letter expressing their strong support for the removal of homeless shelters from the city’s occupancy charts, while casting a wary eye on the “temporary” label. It was read by Ballpark Chair Amy Hawkins at the meeting.

Not surprisingly, providers of homeless services opposed it. The Road Home, operator of homeless shelters and resource centers, provided lengthy comments against the zoning changes and the rather demanding list of new facility operating requirements. “The proposed rules would place a significant administrative and financial burden on shelter providers for the homeless, who are providing a much-needed service to the community,” wrote Michelle Flynn, executive director of Road Home.

The Gail Miller Resource Center, 242 W. Paramount Ave (1530 S.) Photos by Luke Garrott.

Rescue Mission’s Christopher Crosswhite expressed his organization’s frustration that “this will delay all the progress we’ve made over the last 10 years and severely impact our impact”.

If the ban on homeless shelters is enacted in all zones, Crosswhite explained, “The rescue mission would not be able to solicit donations to purchase new land for expansion because it would not be able to identify a specific property , to imagine a facility … or to represent it [to donors] that it could get a zoning permit for the project.”

The vote of the commission

The planners themselves expressed their reluctance to engage in a discussion of operational issues, citing a lack of expertise on the matter. Commission Andra Ghent asked Director Norris if service providers in their opposition “misunderstand the intent of the change”.

“I don’t think they got it wrong,” Norris replied. “I think they have some very legitimate concerns with that approach.”

While the commissioners were relatively silent in their discussion – the item was the last in a four-hour session – Adrienne Bell, asked by Chair Amy Barry to cast the first vote, seemed to sum up the sentiment.

“I don’t think we should remove the usages from the code until we have a plan to address this issue,” Bell noted before voting for the negative recommendation.

An overwhelming majority of colleagues on the commission voted 7 to 1 to recommend rejection by the city council, which is likely to take up the issue soon at the request of the administration. The six-month land use moratorium “pending ordinance” expires in April.

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