Talking Heads, The Honorable Jackie Biskupski

10 min read

Collaboration Key to Implementing “Growing SLC” Housing Plan

Despite having one of the hottest economies in the country, Salt Lake City suffers from a shortage of affordable housing.

From 2010 to 2014, the city gained 4,400 new residents—double the pace of growth recorded from 2000 to 2010 —and city officials estimate the population could grow by another 30,000 people by 2030.

When Jackie Biskupski became mayor in January 2016, she formed a “Blue Ribbon” Commission of local experts to devise a solution. The result was the city’s first housing plan in almost 20 years and, according to Mayor Biskupski, a potential model for other communities.

Thus far, 2,500 affordable units have been completed or are in the planning pipeline, compared with 100 or fewer units per year before she got elected.

The city hopes to further reduce homelessness by constructing more permanent supportive housing. And a new mass transit plan that was approved in 2017 will expand access to public transportation and reduce the need for automobiles, resulting in cleaner air.

Mayor Biskupski sat down with Tax Credit Advisor to talk about her initiatives that are helping transform Salt Lake City.

Tax Credit Advisor: I’d like to learn more about the “Blue Ribbon” Commission that was established to help implement your housing plan. Who participated and what impact has it had?

Jackie Biskupski: We invited developers, bankers, nonprofits and housing experts from the state, county and city. From the outset, I explained that we needed to create a model for other communities to latch onto and move the ball down the field toward creating more affordable housing. In Salt Lake County alone, when I came in as mayor we needed 30,000 affordable units, almost 10,000 of which were needed just in Salt Lake City alone. I pulled this team together and at first it was like, ‘yea, you know that’s never going to work,’ and then I said, ‘look, not only do we need to figure this out and make it work, I need 1,000 units in the pipeline within a year.’ There was a collective gasp in the room, because only about 200 units had been built in 2015. I tried to elevate the discussion around how important this work was. We couldn’t let the private market take care of it, because the private market had done nothing up to that point. For our community to be sustainable, everyone had to come to the table with a ‘yes’ mentality and open mind to make it work. It took a couple meetings to get people warmed up to each other. Eventually, the conversations became more robust, people came together for the greater good, and we created a success story that has been remarkable. We had people going from ‘that’s impossible’ to ‘alright, let’s walk through the steps, what are the barriers and how do we get through them?’

TCA: Is the Commission permanent or will it expire?

Biskupski: It was an informal commission that I created, it was never formalized, nor will it ever be. I don’t foresee it continuing, unless we see a decline in progress. One exciting Low Income Housing Tax Credit project that came out of this effort was built by a developer [Chris Parker, executive director of Giv Group], who said, ‘Okay, let’s figure this out,’ and then he took it to the next level and said, ‘I am going to do this net-zero.’ He went back to his team and they figured out a way to create an affordable housing property that was net-zero, with rents for as little as $250 a month. They documented everything on these big boards and shared their strategic vision at the open house. He was like, ‘Take photos, take this back to your community and do what we’re doing.’ That’s how excited people were by the time we had created a path and implemented our housing plan. They felt they were doing something significant.

TCA: Can you provide our readers with a sense of Salt Lake City’s demographics, especially the growing cultural diversity that the city is experiencing?

Biskupski: Technology is driving some of our growth. We have a lot of bioscience research that goes on here. There is a large pool of Millennials living here. They represent about 20 percent of the population. They love the size of our community. We are a city, but we’re still just over 200,000 people. There is some beauty about having access to big-city amenities and experiences while living in a smaller setting. Then there’s the outdoor playground. We have one of the best outdoor recreation areas in the country. One-third of our population is multicultural. We have Brigham Young University and a policy of welcoming refugees. About 20 percent of our population was born outside of the United States. In our public schools, we speak over 100 languages. It’s really an interesting dynamic here that’s intriguing to the world. Part of our housing dilemma is that over half of our residents are renters. The median income for people living in the city is just under $50,000, while the rest of the county is around $70,000. To help close the income gap, the Department of Economic Development has helped create 9,000 new jobs with average incomes of around $60,000. We’re trying to work at making life here in the city more affordable from multiple angles. We want to get people out of their cars. We want them to live and work in the same location and not have to use a vehicle that contributes to our air pollution. There is a big picture here that is driving a lot of this work.

TCA: What are the key ingredients to expanding affordable housing in Salt Lake City? Are they financial incentives, policy changes, a little of both?

Biskupski: The private market wasn’t offering incentives, so the city created some tools and we worked closely with the state. What I also think is important is that smart policies that affordable housing experts brought to the table really helped us with cleaning up the building mentality. The developers in the room talking about affordability said, ‘We can get to affordability, but we can’t go clean.’ But then that one developer [Chris Parker] says, ‘Oh, yes we can. We’ll figure it out.’ Everyone on the commission was driven by multiple things. Zoning policies in the city were, and still are, problematic. We have some work to do here. Our zoning policies are very old, but this year we’ll see some changes coming that will help our five-year housing plan come to fruition.

TCA: You mentioned earlier that you want your housing plan to be a model for other communities. What is your administration doing differently that other cities should be emulating?

Biskupski: It’s important to bring the players to the table. The banks. The developers. The nonprofits. The housing experts. You bring everyone to the table, and as a mayor and a leader, you say, ‘This is what has to happen in this city. What is happening now is not sustainable. We all need to latch onto the reality about what is happening here.’ I invited people into the room who I thought would listen. Did I think I would get some push back? Yes, of course. But I also felt like I could get people to listen to the mission and the vision and understand the bigger picture of what is possible if we can collaborate and do this together. I think success comes from vision and leadership and also from being able to bring a diverse group of people into the circle and create effective dialogue to get to the end-goal. Having been a Democratic legislator for 13 years, I had many years of experience bringing people into the circle to help them understand things they may not have before and paint a mission and vision in a way that they could embrace. The community’s buy-in and the state’s buy-in with how we deliver services to people experiencing homelessness, and the housing component piece that had to be part of that solution, was also helpful. The timing of this dialogue with that dialogue, and the stacking of the two, was very important. I don’t know of any city that isn’t dealing with how to better manage its homeless population. The comprehensive way of doing the work is important.

TCA: What new supportive services are you trying to provide to residents? Have you encouraged the building of affordable housing near public transportation?

Biskupski: Salt Lake City has become a model for reducing homelessness. We are in the process of closing our homeless shelter and moving toward a resource center model, where we move people from the street into affordable homes while getting them connected to steady work. We are all part of the same community. We can’t just tuck people away and act as though they’re not there. Developers have agreed to set-aside units specifically for permanent supportive housing. The buy-in has been tremendous. One developer who’s working on a 400-unit project reserved 60 units for permanent supportive housing. He told me, ‘We will build a more sustainable ‘neighborhood’ by being inclusive of everyone, not just a segment of the population, but everyone.’ We also have some new funding to help with this. We created two master plans, one for housing and one for transportation. We took these plans to the community and said, ‘Here’s our transit master plan and here’s our affordable housing master plan. Would you support a sales tax increase to fund these programs?’ The community agreed to a sales tax equal to five cents for every ten dollars spent that captures everyone, including people who work in the capital during the day but live elsewhere. We wanted all stakeholders to pay for this new infrastructure. It was an easier sell to the community. And not only did the community say ‘yes’ to a sales tax increase, they went to the ballot last November and said ‘yes’ to a property tax increase of about five dollars per household per year that will pay for road repairs. The bigger piece is that now we have a master transit plan and a master housing plan. You will see affordable housing units coming online near these transit lines, so that we can help people avoid driving their cars and help clear the air.

TCA: What are your goals for 2019?

Biskupski: We must implement these master plans and we must be transparent. We created an online resource for people to track how their tax dollars are being spent in these areas. It’s important that people who said ‘yes’ to a tax hike understand that they are getting what they asked for.

Story Contact:
Matthew Rojas
Director of Communications • 801-535-6040

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.