Beyond Rio Grande: Utah Real Estate’s Quiet War on the Poor

By P.N.

Last winter, a group of activists called the Take Shelter Coalition gathered on the lawn of Salt Lake City Hall, pitching tents and building temporary structures under cover of darkness. For the next 44 hours, coalition members provided shelter, food and first aid to homeless folks in the area. The encampment was constructed partially as an effort to provide direct aid to unsheltered people and partially in protest of the city’s recent closure of The Road Home, previously the largest shelter in the state.

That fall, Utah’s state government had bought the downtown property for $4 million before closing and demolishing it after months of delays. Construction on several new shelters— only one of which, the Gail Miller women’s resource center, is located anywhere near downtown— had to be completed before the city’s homeless could be shunted off to its periphery. But these new shelters only had a combined capacity of about 700, compared to the 1400+ beds available at the Road Home. As the weather grew colder, homeless advocates became increasingly concerned that many would be left to freeze, despite the city’s constant claims that there were enough beds for everyone. (During the day, SLC’s shelters often report having 50+ beds open each, as unsheltered folks leave and go about their business. Every night at “check-in” time, however, lines for beds may stretch around the block.)

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demolition begins on the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City on Monday, January 27, 2020.

Around 8 PM on the second night of the Take Shelter Coalition’s occupation, lookouts reported that several dozen police cruisers were approaching. Activists moved to evacuate homeless folks from the park. The next several hours were more or less what everyone there had expected: cop cars surrounded the block, ordered those gathered to leave in compliance with the park’s 11 o’ clock curfew, then moved in with riot gear and made arrests. SLCPD Chief Mike Brown praised the “restraint” shown by the officers as they threw to the ground and cuffed an outnumbered and unarmed group of protestors for curfew violations.

Two weeks later, the city announced that it would be opening a new temporary shelter, meeting one of the activists’ main demands. That shelter closed its doors in April.

Failure by Design?

Salt Lakers now find ourselves in an achingly familiar situation. The City Council recently met in a special session to approve the opening of another temporary shelter in Millcreek— and to publicly complain about having to dedicate yet more resources to caring for the homeless. After the meeting, mayor Erin Mendenhall logged on to Twitter to air her grievances, saying “[L]et’s be clear: it is not Salt Lake City’s role to address the statewide problem of too few shelter beds.”

This is an absurd assertion to make when the vast majority of Utah’s homeless live in Salt Lake City, and considering that cops and DoH workers had been sent to bulldoze a growing encampment in Rio Grande the previous day. But the council’s unanimous hand-wringing seems to reflect the city’s approach to homelessness: not our problem! get them out of here!

The demolition of The Road Home was transparently an effort to clear homeless folks out of central SLC, and a continuation of years of anti-homeless, pro-gentrification policy. In 2017, after several murders in the Rio Grande neighborhood, the city launched “Operation Rio Grande,” a nearly 70 million dollar crackdown on downtown crime which continues to the present day. While authorities framed the operation as a humanitarian move to protect homeless people and connect them with resources, a recent investigation by the Salt Lake Tribune found that “[n]early 80% of the money budgeted for Operation Rio Grande was used for policing, jail beds and court costs.” This spending mirrors the outcomes for unsheltered people over the course of the operation: thousands were thrown into jail (1,215 arrests were made in the area in just the first month) for low-level crimes such as jaywalking, public camping, littering, open containers and drug possession. Over the course of the operation, thousands more have been incarcerated. Only a few hundred have actually been connected with housing and treatment services.

(ACLU Utah)

Again, this was all advertised as a boon to the homeless community. A statement from the Utah House in 2017 claimed that “[t]he goal [of Operation Rio Grande] is to lock up dangerous criminals who have preyed on our most vulnerable citizens” and that funding for the project would be split evenly between law enforcement and housing and treatment services. These claims turned out to be naïve at best. At worst? Well, let’s take a look at who was pushing for Operation Rio Grande in the first place before we draw any hasty conclusions.

The Rio Grande Gang

Bryson Garbett is a Utah housing magnate and Harvard Business grad, as well as the CEO and president of Garbett Homes. The company builds upscale, modern homes for upscale, modern people; we can only speculate that Mr. Garbett is very content with Salt Lake City’s skyrocketing housing prices, fueled in large part by an influx of well-to-do Silicon Valley types from California.

In 2013, Garbett purchased a property facing Pioneer Park (in the Rio Grande neighborhood) for $2 million. Imagine his dismay when he realized that the park was, at the time, a very popular spot for homeless encampments due to its proximity to the Road Home shelter and other resources for the unsheltered, such as a no-cost healthcare clinic and a soup kitchen. (We assume that he must have only seen the property by helicopter.) But Garbett was never one to let a few indigents get in his way. He has been a player in Utah politics since the 70s: first as a delegate to the state’s Republican nominating convention, where he nominated Orrin Hatch, then in the 80s as a state legislator. Bryson Garbett is a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of guy, and he certainly knows whose bootstraps to pull.

That year, Garbett started the Pioneer Park Coalition (PCC), a nonprofit which brands itself as a “grassroots effort” and “community advocate.” Its staff includes Scott Howell, a lobbyist and former Senator who has worked under contract for Garbett Homes; David Kelly, a commercial real estate agent; Greg Hughes, former Utah Speaker of the House; and a slew of other politicians, real estate “entrepreneurs” and so-called “small business owners.” Josh Romney, son of Mitt Romney and president of the family’s real estate business, was also recruited (though he later stepped away from the group).

The coalition immediately got to work leveraging its financial and political clout. By January of 2014, it had partnered with local, state and county government to draft a new “Homeless Services Strategy.” This plan might be considered a prototype of Operation Rio Grande; the first step in its proposed timeline was to “[d]istinguish between homeless and criminals in order to eliminate the criminal element from preying on homeless people,” a distinction which is absolutely meaningless in a city where homelessness itself is criminal. Subsequently planned was a resolution to increase police presence in the neighborhood and employ “community policing strategies,” otherwise known as snitching. The PCC is a major proponent of such police surveillance initiatives. SLCPD launched “Operation Safe Cam” with funding from the coalition in spring of 2014, which allowed business owners and homeowners to give the department 24/7 access to their security camera feeds; the Pioneer Park Coalition website also encourages local residents to call the cops and the Department of Health on homeless people in the area and provides the following document to be posted up in “problem areas.”

The Homeless Services Strategy of 2014 also included plans to build 300 units of permanent supportive housing (apartments with subsidized rent, specifically designated for the chronically unsheltered) through contracts with private companies, using over $8 million in city funds. This housing never materialized. Salt Lake City has been praised by the press nationally for its “Housing First” approach to homelessness, but the city has failed to build any new supportive housing for nearly a decade. Instead, the City Redevelopment Agency has been throwing money at builders to get them to include a few units of affordable housing in their projects: $4 million was made available to developers this year, $10 million in 2019. Meanwhile, housing prices have exploded. Rent for many working-class people in the city is quickly outstripping stagnant wages. Homelessness in the city is on the rise again.

If we want to talk about who’s responsible for these failed approaches, from Operation Rio Grande to the relocation of the Road Home, the Pioneer Park Coalition leaves little room for uncertainty; in fact, they wrote a commentary in the Tribune this year proudly taking credit for the operation, and praising their collaborators in government: “…leaders like Robert Marbut, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes… [brought Operation Rio Grande] to the table.” Hughes, who the authors fail to disclose is a member of their group— and who was running for governor at the time— gets special attention here: “[he] made it clear throughout ORG that his priority was to ensure that those who were truly vulnerable were cared for… His leadership allowed everyone to get a seat at the table when it mattered most.” If ‘everyone’ is meant to refer to property developers scheming to cut themselves a slice of the neighborhood, then I agree. “The more we talk about who deserves credit for programs like ORG, the more we allow homeless individuals to become policy pawns,” the authors conclude. What a disgustingly cynical, hypocritical line!

(KUTV) Greg Hughes at the 2020 GOP gubernatorial debate, which was funded by the Pioneer Park Coalition, June 16, 2020.

Of course, the PCC is only a part of the problem, mainly focusing their efforts on displacing unsheltered people for the gentrification of a single neighborhood. An interrelated, though much wider and more loosely defined coalition continues to profit from Salt Lake City’s affordable housing crisis.

Real Housing Problems, Real Estate Solutions

Last year I spoke to a neighbor in downtown Section 8 apartments. He told me that over the five years he had been there, the rent for his one-bedroom apartment had increased from just under $700 to over $900 a month, even as the unit’s condition slowly deteriorated— the management company had ignored all of his requests for necessary repairs.

Utah’s tenants have effectively no recourse against negligent and exploitative landlords. If a property owner refuses to make necessary repairs (and they often do) the renter has three options. They can call the Department of Health to do an inspection, in which case they may simply be evicted if the issues are very bad; they can choose to end their lease, evicting themselves; or they can repair-and-deduct, meaning they fix it themselves and withhold the total cost from their rent, in which case the landlord can still evict them if they take issue with the amount deducted. If the tenant chooses to contest the eviction by taking the case to court and loses, the landlord may collect damages

So, let’s say your heating is broken in the middle of the winter. You ask your landlord multiple times to fix it and he ignores you, so you serve him with a written “notice of deficient conditions,” which gives him ten days to fix the problem before you take recourse. (Realistically, you would have given up by now.) Ten days pass, so you pay for the repairs yourself, deducting the cost from your rent, and inform him of the deduction. When the first of the month rolls around, you still find a three-day pay-or-vacate notice on your door. This is obviously unjust, so you take it to court; the judge decides that you deducted $10 more than you should have, and rules against you. The sheriff “escorts” you from your home, and you now owe the landlord three times rent due for the remaining months on your lease, plus his expenses in court. (Note that tenants can never collect treble damages from their landlord.) And now you’re out on your ass, likely homeless, with thousands of dollars being garnished from your wages over the next several years.

Despite these brutally punitive and one-sided laws— despite the crisis of unaffordable housing which has only been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic— the solutions proposed by city government never involve increasing tenants’ rights, implementing rent control, or even raising the miserably low minimum wage. Instead, every housing problem is seen as a real estate investment opportunity. The mayor’s latest brainchild is building a “tiny home community” for the homeless, which would no doubt involve a multi-million-dollar contract with major developers.

And the city’s solution for slumlords? The “Good Landlord” program, which hands out tax cuts to landlords who take a yearly class on property-ownership.

While chic tiny-home neighborhoods are still a vague liberal dream on the distant horizon, Mayor Mendenhall still opposes homeless encampments in the city. She ignores the many reasons that these Skid Rows-in-miniature keep popping up in the Rio Grande area. Many homeless folks hate the shelters and are afraid of contracting COVID in them. They have jobs and an established community in the Depot district, and many of the city’s services (like the 4th Street clinic) are concentrated there. But all of these facts are brushed aside with assertions that camps are unsanitary and criminal, though internal conflict and a lack of sanitation could both be remedied with on-site resources. Why is getting homeless people off the streets such a concern, when afterwards they are just shuffled between shelters and jail cells? It’s not out of any concern for the people themselves— the homeless lower real estate values.

Fat Off the Land

As is true of every state in America, real estate developers and landlords wield  tremendous political power in Utah. But not every state has Utah’s booming real estate market, and elites like Hughes and Garbett will stop at nothing to cash in on that boom. Salt Lake City’s urban ecology has a niche to be filled and a buck to be made by almost every class of predator, from landlords to debt collectors to evictions lawyers. Senator Kirk Cullimore is one of the latter. His firm, the biggest of its kind in the state, files thousands of evictions in Utah every year on behalf of landlords. The vast majority of these cases are never contested by the judges they’re handed off to; after a rare case in which the judge decided not to hand Cullimore’s firm their usual thousands of dollars in fees for simply filing boilerplate legal documents with the court, the Senator attempted to pass a bill that would allow attorneys to refuse an assigned judge for any reason.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kirk Cullimore, right, shares a laugh with Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, Feb. 26, 2020 .

Naturally, Cullimore has a history of using his legislative powers to push landowners’ interests. His own website boasts that “Mr. Cullimore directly wrote and work [sic] with the legislature on almost all laws which currently exist relating to landlords”. But what else can we expect? It’s only his duty as head of the “Government Affairs Committee” of the Utah Apartment Association, the state’s major landlord advocacy group. It may not surprise you to learn that he’s far from the only Utah politician to do this either. For example, our good friend Greg Hughes (himself a real estate developer) wrote the 2006 bill banning rent control statewide.

This is the vicious cycle of Utah politics: the government writes Big Business’s checks, and Big Business writes the government’s bills. The capitalist “right” to property-ownership is protected, and the human right to housing is neglected. Our elected officials strike down every popular progressive housing reform, take their cut of the market’s profits, and Tweet about how their hearts bleed for the impoverished masses even as they quietly wage a war of attrition on Utah’s working class.

So what has to change?

Housing First, For Real This Time.

Housing is not a commodity. It’s a fundamental human need. Our politicians have failed to build a society that meets this need; why should we expect them to? They profit from and perpetuate our neediness. For every Utahn who is made homeless, Senator Cullimore earns a few thousand dollars. For every month that a Salt Lake slum-dweller treads the treacherous waters of rising rent, one of his clients lines their pockets— Greg Hughes has made sure of it. Every time a new apartment building goes up downtown, charging $1,500 a month for the luxury of a one-bedroom unit, you can be certain that one of our local leaders will be picking out their finest polo shirt for “power lunches” with Bryson Garbett or someone who looks like him.

But ultimately, these people are just the tools of capital, and until capital itself is abolished we will never see the end of homelessness or poverty. While the government has failed to serve the people, it has certainly served capital. It is time that we serve ourselves.

To this end, we— Salt Lake City’s progressive and revolutionary activists— must first acknowledge our own failures. We have marched and picketed and rallied for years, and what gains have we made? For the most part, our demands have been minimal, and still the city and state have failed to meet them. Seventeen people were arrested and jailed at the Take Shelter Coalition’s occupation, and the city only opened a small temporary shelter (a move that they made again this year, unprompted). Yet we continue to protest, sometimes aimlessly, hoping that this time we will not be ignored. This is not to say that protests are bad or altogether useless. But for the most part, all we have done is protest, along with some mutual aid work… and neither of these things have ever accomplished fundamental and necessary change.

Part of the reason I think that we have confined ourselves to these methods is because we have approached the problems of homelessness, tenants’ rights and workers’ struggle as if they are separate, homelessness especially because it is the most egregious and visible problem. But they are really all the same problem, and we cannot struggle against one without struggling against the others. In this brutal economy, working people need higher wages and lower rent to avoid becoming homeless, and homeless people cannot stop being homeless without these same conditions. So if we really want to end homelessness, the very least of our demands should be livable wages and rent, and our goal must be revolutionary abolition.

It’s a daunting prospect, and I honestly don’t think that Salt Lake City’s fragmented, sparse activist scene is up to it. But our working class is. This is our task: to educate and agitate the masses of the people, and to help them build a workers’ and tenants’ movement that can cash its own checks and write its own bills. Voting is not enough, and it never has been. We need a worker’s party. We need socialism now. Countless people suffer and starve every day in the richest country on Earth— even in Utah, one of its wealthiest states– and no amount of marching and no number of ballots cast is ever going to change that while the ruling classes still dominate our politics and our economy.

This will not be an easy fight, nor a short one. But it is necessary, now more than ever, to rise up and fight back; it is necessary to speak the quiet war out loud. Otherwise, we have condemned ourselves and our communities to ultimate defeat in a battle that none of us can afford to lose.