Salt Lake City’s downtown roared back from the depths of the pandemic. As newcomers flooded into Utah over the past two years — enticed by a hot economy, a lower cost of living and the outdoors — new residential towers, food halls and whiskey bars have sprouted against the backdrop of the Wasatch mountains. The city’s downtown population is expected to double in the next two years.
But it comes at a cost: Rocsheda Wilson said the downtown resurgence was pushing out working-class people like her.
For 30 years, Salt Lake City was her affordable hometown. She lost her customer-service job after getting Covid-19, then lost her apartment. She said she and four of her children had to career from couches to motels to transitional housing. Apartments in her old neighborhood that once rented for $850 had been renamed, remodeled and re-rented for $1,700. She now lives in a subsidized apartment in a suburb 45 minutes’ drive south of the city.
“It was either take this and deal with the grind, or be out on the street,” she said one afternoon, as she and her son Antwan, 13, walked toward the bus stop on their commute home.
Housing costs have spiraled in Mountain West downtowns during the pandemic, spurred by remote work and worsening housing shortages. Housing costs have soared in cities like Denver and Boise, Idaho, as well as in ritzy mountain towns like Park City, Utah. In Salt Lake City, the price of a typical home rose to more than $600,000 last month, from $425,000 at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020.
Salt Lake City has struggled to provide enough housing for the working poor and people who are chronically homeless. Downtown business owners complained to the police over the summer about security, human waste and drug activity stemming from growing numbers of homeless people who do not have adequate access to help.
Salt Lake City is spending roughly $26 million on affordable housing projects, such as building new housing and retrofitting existing motels into apartments, and also hopes to build an $8 million tiny-home community, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said. Advocates say the projects are welcome, but much more is needed.
And the city keeps growing. While only about 60 percent of downtown office workers have come back, tourism and nightlife have surged past prepandemic levels. A dozen downtown restaurants closed while pandemic restrictions were in force, but since then, 19 have opened. In a state where as recently as 2017, strict alcohol laws required that drinks be mixed out of sight of restaurant patrons, tipplers can now order a Utah Old Fashioned at a clubby new restaurant, Franklin Avenue, or have craft beer and tacos in the industrial Granary District.
Matt Crandall, a downtown restaurateur, said the traffic at his restaurants was running as much as 20 percent above prepandemic levels. “People are dying to get out,” he said. “The city is getting bigger. It’s amazing — on every street corner there are condo buildings going up.”
On the eastern edge of downtown, a seven-story apartment building was rising beside Ms. Wilson and her son as they headed home. It promised to have a rooftop swimming pool and a club room. As they looked around, Ms. Wilson’s son set down the heavy bag of pantry items that they were lugging to their new apartment far from downtown.
“Everything is completely changing,” she said.