Home is Where the Hardship Is | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

May 01, 2019 News » Cover Story

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    • Ray Howze

    Amie Annsa stands in the shade of a setting sun and reflects on the year she spent living on the streets. "I've been homeless three times while being an adult," she says from the bottom of the City and County Building's east steps. She's been living in an apartment in Murray with her wife and four kids for the past 18 months, but the memory of not knowing where she would sleep every night still haunts her. "I'm still really, really scared every day of being homeless again," she says. "I just never know if it's gonna happen again."

    A handful of people echo Annsa's fears and tell a crowd roughly four-dozen strong outside the venerable landmark about their own experience with homelessness. They talk about the trauma of not having a place to call home, their struggles with addiction and how they had to navigate homelessness while raising a child. Mariella Mendoza, who identifies with "they" and "them" pronouns, mentions all the praying they did when they were homeless in Ogden for three years. Mendoza pleaded with God to not get kicked out of coffee shops; that no one would ask for an ID at local shelters—an undocumented Peruvian immigrant who has since become a Dreamer, Mendoza came to the U.S. at age 12—and that no one would hurt them when they slept on the floor of a homeless shelter.

    "I am telling you my story not because I want you to pity me, but because I want you to remember the next time you see a person without a home, that they did not deserve this path," Mendoza says. "This is an unjust situation that is happening to the bodies of individuals across this world. This is not fair."

    The people listening to Annsa and Mendoza are rallying for "housing justice." Soon, the protesters and policy professionals will go inside City Hall and urge the City Council to broaden the zoning for single-room occupancy (SRO) units—small, low-cost college dorm-esque rentals people can use to transition out of homelessness. "At the end of the day, housing is a human right," organizer Cristobal Villegas says into the mic. "People try to make profit from us just trying to live our life."

    The demonstration is a kickoff to a multi-month movement calling for the city to do more to ensure citizens can access affordable housing. Among the demands are an expansion of where SROs can be built, a right to SLC-funded counsel for tenants facing eviction, a citywide inclusionary zoning policy and an end to the practice of ticketing of people who camp in public spaces. The goal, Villegas told City Weekly before the protest, is to push city planners and officials "into more just and equitable strategic planning."

    Shortly before everyone relocates to the City and County Building's third floor for the weekly council meeting, Villegas encourages the crowd to comment on the city changing the SRO ordinance. "Take up the space, make this night one of the longest nights of this year for them," he says. "Let them know that we are here, and we are only beginning."

    Amie Annsa describes her experiences with homelessness to the crowd gathered outside the City and County Building ahead of a recent City Council meeting regarding single-room occupancy units. - RAY HOWZE
    • Ray Howze
    • Amie Annsa describes her experiences with homelessness to the crowd gathered outside the City and County Building ahead of a recent City Council meeting regarding single-room occupancy units.

    The Fight for Equity
    Salt Lake City is in the throes of a housing crisis. According to a recent study, housing in the capital city is becoming more expensive for poorer families, exacerbating inequality. In the metro area, housing costs have decreased 2% for people who earn more than the national median. For people who earn less, costs have increased by 2%. The poorest quarter of households make 72% less than the median, but their housing costs are just 16% lower than more affluent residents.

    The city has not ignored this calamity. Enter a five-year plan that acknowledges the systemic problem and lays out a multitude of goals that include reforming city policies to support a high-opportunity housing market, increasing housing options and creating more equity. Since unveiling the plan last year, officials have dedicated money to making homebuying more affordable for certain professionals like teachers and firefighters, and the mayor has incentivized developers to build more affordable units.

    Villegas says the housing justice and equity campaign broadly endorses the city's affordable housing plans, but the movement's aim goes beyond a five-year plan by addressing the institutional causes. "For me, it's more about the systemic changes," he says. The goal, he adds, is to reform the system so it no longer prioritizes profits over people. In other words, to ensure the city grows in a responsible and equitable fashion. "We as a community need to make sure we have the infrastructure to respond to different injustices before we become like cities like Seattle [or] Portland."

    Annsa moved to Utah from Portland. Oregon's hipster haven priced her out of her home. Eventually, so did Utah's. "Housing justice: It's this idea that people should be able to live in comfortable, safe housing, no matter their background or their income," Annsa says. "It comes down to dignity. And I don't always feel like I'm able to feel dignified in my life."

    The campaign's ultimate goal, Mendoza says, is to widen the conversation about housing in Salt Lake City, and what it means to attain housing justice. "I want people to question, 'Why should we settle for just housing affordability?'" they say. "Why shouldn't we continue pushing for equitable housing for everybody?"

    Central to the campaign is the idea that housing is a human right, an indispensable part of life—just as essential as breathing air or drinking water. "A 3-year old could understand housing justice," Mendoza says. "Who deserves to live on the street? Absolutely no one."

    Having a place to live is foundational to all aspects of life, Nicholas Jackson, a staff attorney for the Disability Law Center, says. "It controls who you know, it controls who is available for a role model, what schools are nearby, what hospitals are nearby, green space and environmental hazards," he says. "I can't think of something that is as fundamental, other than housing, toward broader social equity."

    • Ray Howze

    A More Livable City
    The demonstration at the council meeting was the campaign's first step. In the coming months, Villegas says, there will be community building events, more demonstrations and attempts to drive conversations in the upcoming council and mayoral elections.

    The advocacy started with the end-of-April City Council meeting because officials were holding a public hearing on an ordinance that would allow SROs in more zoning districts throughout the city. Currently, SROs are only allowed along transit corridors like North Temple and 400 South. According to a city staff report on SRO text amendments, there are only 50 SRO rooms in Salt Lake City, all of which are in 300 South's Rio Grande Hotel.

    The proposed ordinance would give the homeless a better chance of escaping poverty, Utah Housing Coalition Policy Director June Hiatt says. By putting SROs in prosperous neighborhoods like Sugar House, the formerly homeless will be able to live in mixed-income neighborhoods, which research suggests gives the poor the highest likelihood of staying out of poverty long term.

    Existing SRO zones, she notes, correspond to historically segregated parts of the city. By allowing the humble dwellings to be built in more neighborhoods, Hiatt says officials will start the process of undoing years of decisions that have kept poverty concentrated. "We have to make really hard political decisions to undo it or we're going to see these economic injustices perpetuate year after year after decade," she says.

    Tangential to the proliferation of SROs is the campaign's push for an inclusionary zoning ordinance—which is also mentioned in the city's five-year plan—that would require developers building multi-family housing to designate some of those units as "affordable." A common set-aside, Hiatt says, is making 20% of the units affordable.

    "Inclusionary zoning, SROs," Hiatt says, "those are all methods that cities can use to increase the number of affordable units they can get on the ground."

    Not everyone is in favor of the measures. Paul Smith, the executive director of the Utah Apartment Association, calls inclusionary zoning a tax because developers would have to either eat the cost associated with discounting market-rate units, or pass it along to renters who pay full price. "Somebody has to pay more or make less to set aside affordable housing units," he says, predicting that such an ordinance would "hurt someone. It's not just a well-intentioned policy that doesn't have unintended consequences on people."

    Smith says he has no qualms if inclusionary zoning were used as an incentive—if, as a condition of building additional units, developers were told they needed to designate some of them as affordable—but he's leery of it being used to force developers to do something they otherwise wouldn't do.

    "Incentives are helpful, and I think good public policy," Smith says. "What's bad public policy, is the old Robin Hood: Take from the rich and give to the poor."

    Housing costs go up for everyone when cities employ the fabled approach, Smith warns. "When government meddles in the market," he says, "there are consequences."

    Cristobal Villegas encourages protesters to speak up and let the council know they aren’t going away. The goal, he says, is to encourage city leaders to adopt “more just and equitable strategic planning.” - RAY HOWZE
    • Ray Howze
    • Cristobal Villegas encourages protesters to speak up and let the council know they aren’t going away. The goal, he says, is to encourage city leaders to adopt “more just and equitable strategic planning.”

    Here to Stay
    Standing in the ornate City Council chambers below gold chandeliers and lamps, Villegas tells the elected officials he'll be speaking for four minutes, not the allotted two, because someone at a previous council meeting had been given that luxury. "It really hurts that every time we go through downtown, there are individuals sleeping out there," he says, his voice calm and measured despite the sobering, emotional topic. "I feel guilty because I have a roof over my head."

    He launches into a diatribe about a $7 million loan the city is giving developers so they can build a hotel on Rio Grande Street, the site of the notorious local and state tag-team operation aimed at cleaning up the neighborhood and slashing its crime rate.

    "Time," the city officials tell him, gently trying to nudge Villegas from the lectern. It doesn't work. Villegas tells the council members he passed out informational fliers, noting that "we mean business" as he talks over the elected officials telling him to yield the floor. In a show of support, Villegas' peers snap their fingers as he makes his points.

    "We will be coming back again and again and again," Villegas vows just before he walks back to his seat.

    More than 30 people wind up registering their thoughts on SROs that night. Many give impassioned pleas for expanding the city's affordable housing options, but some exhibit the predictable "not-in-my-back-yard" attitude common to well-off people wary of the homeless moving into their neighborhood. One city resident calls SROs "crime magnets." A woman says other cities should step in to fill the affordable housing void.

    Eventually, Mendoza steps up to the mic. "You talk about us like we are a burden, and that's disgusting to me. I don't think that my people are a burden. I don't think that my people even asked for this," they say. Homelessness, Mendoza continues, is a condition that is imposed on individuals in a capitalist society. It's forced on people just like poverty and displacement.

    "Now I know that might sound like a rant you might hear on Facebook, but I am here, in front of you, telling you this from my own experience," Mendoza says. "I did not deserve to live on the streets, and neither do you."

    Mendoza wraps up shortly after the buzzer sounds, indicating it's time for them to yield. "I hope you take this with you," Mendoza says. "We're here. You can't get rid of us."

    After everyone speaks, Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall successfully proposes to close the SRO discussion and take action on the proposed ordinance in May. "I love the passion that you bring to equity, and housing in this city, to geographic equity in access to housing, and also to the elimination of the concentration of poverty that is systemic, that is historic, it continues in many regards," Mendenhall tells the contingent. She adds that, "this is the least timid council in Salt Lake City's history when it comes to affordable housing," mentioning the more than $21 million they've allocated to address the crisis and the Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance they approved last October.

    "I think what you're bringing to the conversation is really relevant," Mendenhall tells the group. "I don't think it's falling on deaf ears."

    Mariella Mendoza, left - RAY HOWZE
    • Ray Howze
    • Mariella Mendoza, left

    A Legal Wishlist
    Another housing justice and equity campaign tentacle involves a reforming of local judicial and justice systems. Utah Legal Services' Managing Attorney Marty Blaustein says the odds of someone avoiding an eviction are much greater if they have an attorney. Landlords have lawyers who routinely argue in front of the same judges. Unlike most tenants, they know the law, which puts them in a more favorable position.

    "Without counsel, I suspect you're going to lose," Blaustein says matter-of-factly. "That's just the way it is. You're not going to do well."

    The stakes are high. Those evicted are branded with a scarlet letter that makes it harder for them to secure housing. And in Utah, if a tenant loses their case, they're on the hook for hefty fines, not to mention their landlord's attorney fees and court costs.

    If the housing justice campaign gets its way, the city will provide counsel to people who need to appear in court. "It does give the tenant, perhaps in an eviction sense, perhaps additional time to work out a deal," Blaustein says. "If you're gonna lose your home, you should also have a right to have counsel."

    The Utah Apartment Association's Smith suggests this demand is somewhat moot. "I think tenants have the right to counsel already," he says. "They just don't have the right to free counsel."

    Smith says he's not entirely against the city using taxpayer money to pay for attorneys in eviction proceedings. "What I do oppose is delaying tactics," he says. Property owners are losing money every day as they wait for a judge to rule whether an eviction is justified, Smith says. Lawyers frequently roam the halls on days dedicated to "possession hearings," legal parlance for the times of the week that judges conduct hearings on evictions. Oftentimes, Smith says, tenants are trying to stall. "They want to live there three more weeks without paying rent."

    The other demand from the campaign's legal arm is ending the ticketing of people for camping in public spaces. "We're talking about abolishing or getting rid of that city code," Villegas says. "That's one way to decriminalize homelessness."

    There's a reason cops ticket people for camping, Salt Lake City Police Detective Greg Wilking says. It's a public health nuisance that can affect businesses by making shoppers uncomfortable and wary of stepping into that store. "I mean, I don't want someone camping on my front lawn and pooping in my front yard," he says. "The accumulation of garbage and the feces and the urination and the drug paraphernalia and the litter, that all adds up and causes people to be put off by their being there."

    Still, Wilking says the ticketing isn't intended to be punitive. It's meant to change behavior. If someone racks up a dozen tickets, it sends a message to the judge that the person keeps coming into contact with law enforcement, placing a burden on the community. "Maybe we need to look at a different way of treating this problem," the detective says, suggesting diverting them to a substance abuse program or mental health court. "Maybe there's something the court can do to help this individual."

    The citation is technically a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $750 fine and 90 days in jail. But Wilking says the punishment is typically at the lower end of the spectrum. "I have never in my career heard of an offender getting anywhere near to that, if they're a person that is homeless," he says, summing up his nearly 13 years on the Salt Lake City force.

    Ticketing is a relatively rare occurrence anyway, Wilking adds. More often, police informally tell campers they have to relocate. "That kind of shooing along is a constant, and it's been there for as long as I can remember," he says. "It takes a lot of effort to get cited by our officers."

    Regardless of how often cops fine campers, Villegas says changing the city code could be a symbolic gesture that humanizes homeless people. "The problem isn't with crime, it's that we criminalize people," he says. "The behavior is one thing, but existing and criminalizing an existence, that's what ticketing people experiencing homelessness is."

    Mendoza secured housing six years ago. They currently rent an apartment in Salt Lake City. The 29-year-old is taking classes at Salt Lake Community College, hoping to earn a degree in art, and works as an illustrator and at a fast-food restaurant to pay the bills.

    Mendoza isn't just a housing advocate. They're also an immigration and climate justice activist. The social justice demonstrator says those fights are all interconnected. "In order to really rescue a community, you need a more thorough plan, and you need to look at the intersection of not just the oppressors, but also the oppressed," Mendoza says. "All of these powers are working together."

    Those issues also exacerbate homelessness. It's hard enough navigating the world as a queer person of color, Mendoza says. But dealing with that stress while also being homeless? "It's devastating."

    By fighting for social justice across multiple fronts, Mendoza has stayed busy since procuring a place, but they've also had to find ways to process the three years spent sleeping in shelters, on bus benches and in parks. "Since securing housing, I feel like all of my trauma has started catching up with me," Mendoza says, explaining how things they tried to forget have begun to reemerge.

    "Home" is a confusing, alien concept that they're still trying to define, though having a roof over one's head makes it easier to recover. "The process of healing for a formerly houseless person cannot begin until they have a home," Mendoza says. "Once it starts, it's like a ripple effect. It transforms you."

    Mendoza's life is more stable than it once was. But the feeling of living on the streets still lingers. "Sometimes I wonder if the reason why I continue to find myself in unsafe situations is because I don't know stability now," they say. "And I have to be in unsafe situations in order to feel at home."

    Mendoza was 19 when they first became homeless. Every month, Mendoza and a friend from the shelter would go to Ogden's First Friday Art Stroll. They'd dress up, gawk at art, drink wine and eat cheese, pretending they were just like everyone else—like they had a home to go back to. When strangers asked where they were going after the navel-gazing, they'd tell them they were going back to their place. "Then we'd run back to the shelter like we were about to turn into a pumpkin," Mendoza recalls, looking back on the frantic rush to get back to the shelter before it closed its doors for the night.

    Those simple evenings were a refuge from the desolateness that pierced Mendoza's waking thoughts. "When you're homeless, you treasure everything more; you hold things closer to your heart," Mendoza says, adding that the cloak-and-dagger outings made them feel more alive than ever. "In that moment we weren't homeless. We weren't broken. We weren't dirty. We were perfect," Mendoza says. "We were part of society, and that's something so dear."

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