Liaison: Kira Luke
After weeks of intense public feedback and scrutiny, political rifts and evolutions, I must write where I stand, from where we have come and a bit about where I hope we might go before the landscape shifts, yet again.
Our city is in the midst of one of the more difficult evolutions in memory—that of transitioning emergency homeless services from the centralized, single door of The Road Home to four, new locations scattered around the city. The siting of these future homeless resource centers was an extensive process over two years in the making and included hundreds of community members (including individuals experiencing homelessness), dozens of service providers, public servants, law enforcement, philanthropists and others whose focus over decades has been on service to those experiencing homelessness. Since December 13th, when site locations were announced, much public focus has been on the ‘closed door’ property selection portion of the process.
While I believe we have all since contemplated alternative paths to the one we chose, I can say wholeheartedly that we did our best with what we knew. The Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission (HSSEC), co-chaired by Gail Miller and Palmer DePaulis, had produced 16 “success criteria” and vetted these criteria through public workshops in June 2016. Mayor Biskupski assembled a real estate team to create a heat map of the criteria across the city. No area met all criteria perfectly, so the team then focused on the areas that best met the most criteria. Adding additional filters such as compliance with federal housing regulations and lot size larger than about 1.2 acres, the team began searching on the ground for potential properties. What was eventually brought to the Mayor and Council were sites that could best fulfil the community-vetted success criteria, provide enough space to build the service model planned, and qualify for all the federal assistance necessary. We then asked the HSSEC to review the final list of sites and provide feedback. Ultimately, the four sites Mayor and Council selected were the four most preferred by HSSEC.
Since November, the Council has talked publicly about our decision to make site selection decisions without public input on specific properties in order to avoid pitting neighborhood against neighborhood. Even more than neighbor battling neighbor, we were concerned that the already difficult process would be compounded by discrepancies in wealth across communities.
Having been the recipients of a siting decision the state made earlier in 2016 to place the prison in the Northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City, we clearly recognized the path that communities take when they are finalists for a controversial, long-term location. Wealthy communities hire full-time lobbyists to carry a strong message to as many decision makers as they can, while communities with more limited resources are left to represent themselves, usually resulting in drastic underrepresentation. It requires no stretch of the imagination to guess which areas of Salt Lake City would have the greatest difficulty in uniting voices and hiring resources, as one looks at the density of current parole-violation centers, halfway houses and other intensive services west of I-15.
We also recognized the pricing increase potential of government-as-buyer and opted to use a blind broker in an effort to protect precious taxpayer dollars. Further, we understood that property sellers could be the focus of significant public pressure not to sell and back out of negotiations, should we go public with site locations prior to any contract being executed. Property sellers were willing participants and no eminent domain or other city pressure was involved in the transactions; sites were purchased on the open market at a negotiated rate.
We knew that the reasons behind the sites considered and ultimately selected were based solely upon available properties that best fulfilled the community-vetted success criteria, provided enough space to build the service model planned, and met qualifications for all the federal assistance available. I can still stand behind this decision, as unpopular as it has been.
What I have not been able to stand behind at any point was the location at 653 East Simpson Avenue. As I stated before, no location was a perfect match for all success criteria, though this particular site was more imbalanced, due to immediate adjacency to single family homes. In the small group meeting I participated in during final selection, I was clear with the Administration that I thought this adjacency was too much a deterrent. I communicated that they needed to explore mitigation opportunities and conduct early outreach with those adjacent neighbors, perhaps in offering to purchase homes at current market value and certainly in communicating about the property selection prior to public announcement.
In the weeks that followed I checked in multiple times with the Administration regarding progress on this request. They assured me they were working on it. When the day for public announcement arrived, I learned that my request had not been fulfilled.
I share community concern for the wellbeing of residents and property values in close proximity to all future resource centers. The 700 South location has single family homes about half a block from the development, a senior center, Department of Workforce Services, and senior housing in a 1-block radius. These neighboring County, State, and Housing Authority partners have a unique opportunity to join with local residents in being directly involved in governance and oversight, which increases the chances of the center’s smooth transition into the surrounding community and continued success. The Simpson site poses many of the same concerns, with none of the same opportunities to mitigate potential impact.
The High Avenue site is located at the dead-end of a road with no immediately adjacent homes–the most isolated of the four sites. I will work to ensure that the Enclave Apartments complex (North of the property but on a separate street) will be paid particular attention through the mitigation and design process, as well as having representation on a community advisory board (more on that, below).
My opposition to the Simpson site hinges on the lack of community partners present in the immediate area and the disproportionate geography of single family homes surrounding the site. Recent recommendations by Salt Lake County to locate market rate, affordable and deeply affordable housing at Simpson instead of a resource center shows that the county recognizes this issue.
Further, I fully support a resource center on the “east side” and during the site selection process I lobbied strongly for the selection of the former Deseret Industries site at 2140 South 800 East over the Simpson Avenue location. In the weeks that have followed site announcement, we have learned of issues around the Simpson property that were not presented to the Council during our deliberations, such as a lease through 2019 with Litl’ Scholars and existing litigation. It has become quite clear to me that should an alternative site be considered, there is much vetting and public feedback to be involved before a new selection is made.
It is imperative that four sites be developed, not three. I believe the loss of a fourth location will mean the loss of a facility for single women–a prospect no one should accept. There are other sites that adequately fulfil the success criteria and should be considered if Simpson is not developed as a resource center.
Should progress on the Simpson site continue toward a homeless resource center, I will continue to advocate for the neighbors immediately adjacent and work to create the best possible scenario we can achieve for both those who will be served at the center, and community.
I am committed to transparency throughout the rest of the process on all sites. The community advisory board is an excellent idea that I endorse and will work to secure neighboring community input ‘with teeth’. Establishing community advisory boards as a path to ensure substantive community engagement is a key component to the success of the resource centers. I will work to ensure they are a part of the process going forward, including requiring them as part of the conditional use permit.
Please, remain engaged if you already are and become engaged if you have yet to. In order to achieve the best possible scenario in each community and for all those who will be served, public involvement throughout the development process is critical.
If you haven’t already, please give input on Open City Hall.
Three workshops have already been held to gather public input, but stay tuned for more, including one that I will be hosting here in District Five. Sign up for information about future workshops here.
You can also attend any of the Council’s upcoming 7:00 p.m. formal meetings to address the full Council during the general comment period.
For questions, comments, and concerns please email the City’s dedicated email address email@example.com. Your input will be shared with both the Mayor and Council Members.
For additional information, please visit the homeless resource centers webpage.