Mar 10, 2023 - News

How homelessness is driving local politics in the West

Illustration of a voting booth with a roof on it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Homelessness, and entangled concerns about crime, are emerging as potent political issues in local elections this year, particularly in the West — where a lack of affordable housing is pushing people into the streets.

Why it matters: The political pressure is leading candidates and elected officials — even prominent Democrats such as New York City Mayor Eric Adams and California Gov. Gavin Newsom — to embrace hard-line approaches, including involuntary commitment and arrests, for those who refuse to vacate illegal encampments.

Driving the news: The intractable problems of homelessness and crime helped lead to the recent ousting of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and are poised to upend municipal races in Salt Lake City, Denver and Phoenix.

  • Residents' frustration is pushing the issue to the forefront as homelessness becomes more visible despite decades of promises to address the problem.

The big picture: Homelessness rates increased nationwide in 2022, up 6% from a low in 2016, according to a federal assessment from December.

  • A shortage of affordable housing is the key driver, research confirms, more than mental illness or drug addiction. And rents are increasingly out of reach for lower-income workers, the national coalition found in a recent report.

Catch up quick: In 2021, local and state agencies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove homeless encampments in Salt Lake County, per The Salt Lake Tribune.

  • Advocates and service providers say the new approach is about expedient politics rather than helping people.
  • Elected officials "are turning away from the long-term solutions we know work and instead, they are turning to these out-of-sight, out-of-mind policies," Sarah Saadian, a senior vice president at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, tells Axios.

Zoom in: Jeff Merchant, former chair of the Utah Democratic Party, told Axios that homelessness is increasingly a concern for downtown residents and the business community.

  • "This is a national crisis and mayors are on the front lines," he said.
  • Between 2020 and 2021, the number of Utahns experiencing homelessness for the first time rose 14% following a four-year decline, per a report by the state Department of Workforce Services.
  • During the pandemic, rent in Salt Lake City increased nearly 11% annually from 2020 to 2022, according to an analysis by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah released last year.

What they're saying: Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center, which runs emergency food pantries and a low-cost thrift store, said some residents may feel existing homeless services are inadequate, while others see the issue as a nuisance or source of crime in their neighborhood.

  • "Both of those kinds of perspectives are going to be evident in this [mayoral] race," Bailey told Axios.

Details: Last year, the Salt Lake City Council approved the development of a tiny home village on the west side, aimed at providing housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

What we're watching: This campaign season, affordability is a talking point, but homelessness is the more forceful concern, especially in the 2023 mayoral race.

  • Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who is seeking her second term, faces two challengers, former SLC Mayor Rocky Anderson and Michael Valentine, who have been vocal critics of her efforts to reduce homelessness in the city.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Salt Lake City.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Salt Lake City stories

No stories could be found

Salt Lake Citypostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Salt Lake City.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more