Irked by city government, local attorney Craig Cook says a lawsuit is not out of the question if the divisive homeless shelter proposal at 635 E. Simpson Ave. goes forward.
Cook is part of the neighborhood that’s forging a resistance to the contentious site. He sent a letter to the Salt Lake City Council explaining his opposition and hinting at possible legal action. Whether a lawsuit comes to fruition, however, is not certain. Cook says it’s early and all the legal avenues haven’t been fully explored, but he’s confident there is ground.
“The bottom line is everything is up in the air right now and there’s plenty of opportunity for change,” he says. “Hopefully saner minds will prevail … because the minds of lawyers are great in finding ways of doing things.”
The purchase price for the site has also given residents pause. Mayor Jackie Biskupski explained after her State of the City address last month why the city agreed to pay $7M for property on Simpson Avenue when the resource center was valued at about $3M.
The property owner, she said, who possesses several parcels, wanted the city to buy the entire lot, including some developable property.
“So we bought it all knowing that we could do economic development in that neighborhood along with the creation of a new resource center,” Biskupski said. She said the parcel for the resource center adds up to about $55 per square foot, which is a comparable price for Sugar House.
The city won’t seek reimbursement from the state for the entire purchase, she added.
At a panel discussion on Monday hosted by Salt Lake Community College, House Speaker Greg Hughes reiterated his stance that homelessness was not a problem isolated in the capital city.
But homelessness is most noticeable in downtown Salt Lake City.
Residents in Sugar House have grown uneasy about the possibility that their neighborhood will resemble the scene outside The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street. They are also concerned the value of their property will plummet.
Biskupski agrees the city needs to do a better job with messaging. But she believes the sites will not replicate Rio Grande. Hundreds of people have worked to implement a new system that assesses the services needed and helps people transition into homes.
“You won’t see thousands of people hitting the streets in the morning. That’s just not going to be happening anymore. You won’t see people who are being preyed upon by drug addicts because they are being kicked out. It is a very different service model,” Biskupski said.
City leaders emphasize the revamped approach to helping the homeless population will aim to support those in need to help them get off the streets and into homes. For a while now, the city has acknowledged a growing demand for affordable housing.
Biskupski recently unveiled a new five-year housing plan that recognizes rising home prices and rent are outpacing wages. One facet of the meticulous 197-page plan is to prioritize affordable housing projects.
“Growing SLC acknowledges that it is a moral imperative to ensure Salt Lake City is a community where all people, regardless of race, age, economic status, or physical ability can find a place to call home,” Biskupski wrote in a memo attached to the plan. “We are not simply focused on numbers, but in laying groundwork across the city to support and foster affordable housing.”
Simpson Avenue opponents have slammed the city for picking sites without public input. Officials said they wanted to avoid fighting between neighborhoods.
Cook isn’t so sure the city succeeded.
“All of this has been so shrouded. … In reality, any time you do anything, you’ve got one neighborhood against another,” he says.
Late last year, the mayor announced four sites in the city where homeless resource centers were to be built. Almost immediately, neighborhoods objected, but none as fervently as the residents and businesses in Sugar House near the proposed Simpson site. Two councilwomen—Lisa Adams and Erin Mendenhall—flipped their support of the site in the aftermath.