Who is Salt Lake City made for?

Ian Van der Merwe
Cover Image for Who is Salt Lake City made for?
Housing Crisis

Urban privilege

Across the US cities are becoming increasingly unaffordable, and while SLC has appeared to be an exception to this trend, the city and state are working hard to change this. The most straightforward way to understand the enclosure of urban living is through rents. In concert with ever stagnant wages, rents have near universally climbed. Easily recognizable examples of this process such as New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco may seem far from SLC’s current reality, but trends show that these cities merely show the future. This process of rising rents, which is often followed by displacement and changing demographics, is that of gentrification, and in SLC it doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Gentrification has been twisted and, seemingly in an attempt to lessen its inherent critique, redefined as synonymous with neighbourhood improvement. The best way to understand gentrification is through the words of Ruth Glass, the sociologist who coined the term:

One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences. Larger Victorian houses, downgraded in an earlier or recent period—which were used as lodging houses or were otherwise in multiple occupation—have been upgraded once again … Once this process of “gentrification” starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.1

The process may look different now, nearly 60 years after Glass recognized it, but the effects are the same. The seizure of space away from its current residents giving it over to the upper classes, the “gentry” of today.

The Road Home

The ravaging of SLC’s unsheltered population, exemplified in Operation Rio Grande, sits as an important part of Real Estates attempt to reform the city into its own vessel for capital accumulation. The Road Home, located in what the Salt Lake Tribune labelled as a “prime area for new development,”2 has been one of the most recent victims of this war. Its destruction by the State of Utah in early 2020 can only be seen as a way to appease Real Estate interests in the city at the expense of the city's most vulnerable residents. The land the former Road Home was built on has been assessed at over $5 million3, and was put up for sale by the state shortly after the shelter was demolished. What sets this example apart from otherwise quite common corporate giveaways is the Redevelopment Agency, or RDA.

The RDA’s stated mission is “to revitalize neighborhoods and business districts to improve livability, spark economic growth, and foster authentic communities,”4 and as far as the city's wealthy are concerned, they deliver. Recognizing their project as one of “Urban Renewal” (a deeply concerning concept in and of itself), the RDA functions explicitly to raise property values. The RDA is financed through tax increment financing, which takes the difference between taxed value within a project area before and after the project period, and invests it back into the project, usually for about 20-25 years. Apart from enshrining big capital's grasp on land, raising property values has a host of negative effects on working class tenants, key of which is raising of rents. As property values increase, so too does the amount a landlord can charge in rents. Since the US has some semblance of renter protections, a landlord cannot simply increase rents whenever they want. This creates a ‘rent gap,’ where the potential rent a landlord can extract from a tenant is greater than the amount currently extracted. Rent gaps are inherently tied to land values, and since land can become ever more valuable with no change to tenant wages, the higher the value of land, the greater the burden of rent can become. The RDA publicly finances gentrification, and rebuilds our city for the wealthy.

This is what is happening where the Road Home once stood. In 1998 the RDA created the Depot District project area5, which spans about 18 blocks, and included the former Road Home. Although the project had been ongoing, the demolition of the Road Home seems to have cleared a major barrier which had held back the interests of developers. To be clear the issue was that developers did not want to build near a homeless shelter. The development and planning blog Building Salt Lake stated in a recent post that the “area immediately surrounding The Road Home… has attracted quick interest among developers.”6 It should be clear by now that Operation Rio Grande, which ended with the demolition of the Road Home, was a carefully planned and executed effort by the state, operating on behalf of the Real Estate industry, to open up new areas for capital accumulation. This is what the RDA means when they say they want to “improve livability” and “spark economic growth.”  It is a livability built on the exclusion of those who would cause the upper classes discomfort, and an economic growth which serves only landlords and the rest of the modern gentry.

1Glass Ruth. London: Aspects of Change. London: Centre for Urban Studies and MacGibbon and Kee, 1964.

2Stevens, Taylor. “Old Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City demolished.” Salt Lake Tribune. 27 January 2020.https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2020/01/27/old-road-home-shelter/

3Salt Lake County Assessor. 22 May 2020. https://slco.org/assessor/new/valuationInfoExpanded.cfm?parcel_id=15011780032000&link_id=0

4About the RDA. SLC RDA. http://www.slcrda.com/about-the-rda-2/

5Depot District Redevelopment Project Area. SLC RDA. 15 October 1998. http://www.slcrda.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/DD_PA_Plan.pdf

6Anderson, Taylor. “Following the Road Home’s departure, Salt Lake City’s Depot District is taking off.” Building Salt Lake. 6 July 2020. https://www.buildingsaltlake.com/following-the-road-homes-departure-salt-lake-citys-depot-district-is-taking-off/