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What Salt Lake City is doing — and could do — to be more family-friendly

It’s the constant refresh of the Zillow map. Nothing new in our price range.

It’s the tempting urge to call to see if that spot in the neighborhood day care opened up. No, we’ll wait to be notified.

It’s the eagle-eyed scan across the wood chips for syringes near the playground. Whew. All clear.

While Salt Lake City booms with the potential of more pro sports teams, an all-but-certain return of the Winter Olympics, and a future with major projects such as a green loop around downtown, frustrations abound for families, who are finding it harder and harder to get a start or to stay put in Utah’s capital.

The problem is prominent enough that Mayor Erin Mendenhall made it a major theme of her State of the City speech this year. The city’s future is bright, she said, but squeezing out families runs the risk of preventing this growing place from being a truly great place.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall delivers her State of the City address in January 2024. In it, she emphasized the need to make Utah’s capital better for families.

In Salt Lake City, 18% of its 204,000 residents are 18 or younger, while nationally, that figure hovers at about 22%, according to U.S. census data. In suburban South Jordan, meanwhile, more than 30% of the population is 18 or under.

We asked Mendenhall about her plans for attracting and retaining families, residents about the struggles they face, and experts about what could be done to make Utah’s largest city more family-friendly. Here’s what they told us:

Housing

For Salt Lake City resident Eliot Kang, the search for a home took upward of two years. He and his wife, Alina Barnes, wanted to stay in the Marmalade neighborhood so Barnes could have convenient access to the University of Utah and he could easily hop on the freeway to work in Midvale.

It’s a tough market, though.

“It was just a difficult thing to remind ourselves that, ‘Oh, the market’s really bad,’” Kang said, “‘and we want to stay in the area, and there are not really a ton of options available to us.’”

Kang ultimately found what he considered an “amazing deal.” Three beds, two baths in a Marmalade condominium for $350,000. But before landing that gem, Kang and Barnes, like many young, expecting couples looking to break into the city’s housing market, had to hunt elsewhere.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Town homes stand partially built at a construction site along Redwood Road in Salt Lake City in December 2023. Affordable houses and larger rentals are needed to bolster families in Utah’s capital.

The problem shakes out to simple economics, real estate agent Gary Howard said. It’s all about supply and demand, and it’s pushing young homebuyers outside of the state’s capital.

“You have low inventory,” Howard said, “you have a lot of buyers competing for it, prices go up, and, eventually, a new homebuyer gets priced out.”

Mendenhall said while the city is pumping money into projects that will yield three- and four-bedroom rental units, challenges outside her administration’s control prevent officials from enticing the construction of for-sale multifamily units.

Those challenges, according to Steve Waldrip, Gov. Spencer Cox’s top housing adviser, include unattractive financing structures and pains with obtaining insurance.

Salt Lake City has sought creative ways to get around the hurdles to building wealth with housing, such as partnering with the Perpetual Housing Fund, a nonprofit that benefits renters by letting them keep a portion of the proceeds from a refinanced property where they lease a unit.

For rentals, the mayor said, the city is making strides in bringing larger units on line. This year, the city plans to put more than $38 million into housing, with a priority placed on family-size units.

Day care

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ariandne Moreno, 3, smiles as she greets Mayor Erin Mendenhall in 2020 at Neighborhood House.

Once families nail down a place to live, they encounter another familiar struggle: securing a child care spot.

Finding a place for little ones can pose big problems. Parents bump into seemingly endless obstacles — no openings, long waitlists, burdensome costs.

“I will have to quit my job to afford having a second kid,” a survey respondent told us. “Super weird-sounding, but true.”

Another reader reported paying $1,400 a month for one child to attend day care, and that’s with an employee discount. With two kids receiving care, the cost exceeded the commenter’s mortgage payment.

“Right now, the child care industry is, really, kind of in a crisis,” said Jennifer Nuttall, executive director of Neighborhood House, which offers child- and adult day care options on the west side. “It isn’t a high-margin industry even as a for-profit, because it’s just heavy on labor.”

The city is taking steps to improve the outlook for parents who need to drop off a youngster at day care. This year, the City Council adopted new zoning regulations that will allow the facilities to operate in virtually all neighborhoods, shedding a long-standing barrier to opening these vital businesses.

Last month, the governor signed HB153, a bill that allows unlicensed child care providers to up the number of children they can look after from six to eight.

A number of churches also host child care centers and preschools. Imagine if Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, unlocked its ubiquitous meetinghouses to such operations.

“The church could pilot renting spaces at a steep discount to qualified organizations for full-time child care,” suggests Tribune guest columnist Natalie Brown. “Buildings also could be used for simpler things such as parent-run preschools, summer camps and after-school activities.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Louie and Isla play at an east-side preschool in August 2023. More day cares and preschools, especially affordable ones, are needed to make Utah’s capital more family-friendly.

Mendenhall steered her staff toward crafting a loan program that she wants to unveil this year. The program, modeled after one in Pittsburgh, would benefit existing day cares that want to expand or new operations that want to open.

Moe Hickey, executive director of Voices for Utah Children, said the city’s solutions provide a piece of the puzzle, but what’s really needed is government intervention to directly lower the cost of day care.

“Whether that’s federal, state or a city (initiative), ideally it will be a combination of all three,” he said, “that’s the only way we’re really going to fix it long-term.”

A child care subsidy from the city, Mendenhall said, is not in the works.

Parks, recreation, activities and safety

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gabriel Romero, 7, plays at 17th South River Park with his older sister on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Parks are seen as a way to make Salt Lake City better for families.

Families, of course, require places to work and live. But they also need places to play (whether large parks or small playgrounds) and things to do (be they Little League Baseball or big tent festivals).

Salt Lake City already boasts sprawling Liberty Park and will debut in coming years a similarly spectacular park in the Glendale neighborhood. The city also sprinkles in a peppering of pocket parks.

And when the winter frost thaws, families can stroll the Downtown Farmers Market in Pioneer Park, enjoy myriad events on Main Street and kick back at the low-cost Twilight Concert Series.

(Rachel Molenda | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spectators take in the work of artists at a chalk art festival in 2018 at The Gateway in Salt Lake City. Such events can help attract families.

New gathering places are planned. Mendenhall pointed to redevelopment of the Fleet Block at 800 South and 300 West and the old Public Safety Building on 200 South. She wants to see these projects not only chip away at the housing woes but also include more opportunities for family activities.

The mayor has also directed the Public Lands Department to check out more options for “micro parks” downtown.

While city officials have their sights on more recreational opportunities, some parents have lingering concerns about safety in public spaces.

“Homelessness (is) EVERYWHERE,” a survey respondent said. “… There are literally almost zero parks I would take my kids to because of this.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune
Elle Svay delights in the bubbles created at the Downtown Farmers Market in 2016.

(Keith Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune)
Mason Belliston naps at the Downtown Farmers Market in 2013. The popular showcase of produce and products is anything but a snoozer for the thousands who attend each Saturday.

Austin Taylor, who lives in Central City, said he visits Taufer and Richmond parks often with his young children. While the cleanliness of the parks has improved, he said he wants to see continued efforts to keep recreational areas inviting to families.

Last year, police were ordered to bust up illegal homeless camps in public spaces. Squads dedicated to keeping areas near homeless shelters safer, including places like Taufer Park near 700 South and 300 East, became operational last summer.

Taylor feels safe visiting the parks with his kids now, but issues like finding syringes persist. He said the city ought to prioritize keeping smaller parks, like the ones Mendenhall desires, safe for the public.

“There have been times when just the crowds of people who are hanging around the parks, they’re obviously doing illegal things,” he said, “and you don’t know how someone who’s severely mentally unstable can just lash out at any moment and harm your child.”

Air quality and the Great Salt Lake

Public concerns about the future of the Great Salt Lake are not, unlike the city’s namesake geographic feature, drying up.

One reader said she and her friends feel it wouldn’t be responsible to bring a child into a world where they’ll inherit toxic lake dust or unbreathable air.

Hickey, the executive director of Voices for Utah Children, said poor air quality packs long-term health implications for kids.

“Leadership in Salt Lake has tried to take it seriously,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s been taken seriously at the state level.”

A parent who lives in St. George said he wants to raise his 9-year-old in Salt Lake City but worries about air quality.

“Improving air quality is paramount for us,” the commenter said. “I know this isn’t solely something the mayor can address, but it’s what makes us reluctant to move back.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in September 2023. Utahns worry about the lake’s future and the effects it could have on livability and air quality.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wintertime inversions, like this one in December 2023, are major concerns for parents seeking to rear their children in Salt Lake City.

Great Salt Lake preservation efforts were a major theme of Mendenhall’s State of the City speech last year. Those proposals included an audit of city water use, formalizing a city contribution of recycled water to the lake, and creating a Great Salt Lake shoreline preserve.

The city has concluded its water audit and is working on implementing water-saving measures.

On air quality, the city has committed to moving to 100% net renewable energy by 2030. By 2040, it aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%.

Why it all matters

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aimee Winder Newton, speaking in 2023, is Gov. Spencer Cox’s top adviser on families.

Aimee Winder Newton, a senior adviser to the governor and director of the state Office of Families, sees an economic case for making cities family-friendly. If cities don’t solve these problems, she warned, they could lose out on luring businesses and the economic growth they create.

“They (businesses) want it to be a place where their employees are comfortable,” she said, “and they feel like their family is going to be supported and protected.”

Winder Newton said her office is encouraging the private sector to look at family-friendly policies — parental leave, flexible schedules, day care options and more — to retain workers and bring a better work-life balance to families.

For her part, Mendenhall said keeping families in mind as the city grows comes down to acknowledging what makes a city whole.

Thriving cities, she said, have all ages and demographics, from kids to young professionals to grandparents.

“I want to live in a great city in 10 years and in 50 years,” she said, “and one of the ways we’ll be able to measure our city’s greatness is by who calls this place home.”

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