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FOX 13 Investigates: Developer blames ‘outdated’ Salt Lake City ordinance for enabling squatters

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Posted at 9:56 PM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 22:06:43-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Approximately 140 homes in Salt Lake City are currently vacant and boarded up. One of the reasons could date back to an ordinance drafted nearly a decade ago in response to the infamous “Sugar Hole” that set empty in Sugar House for years.

READ: Construction over the ‘Sugar Hole’ begins (2012)

Now, a frustrated Utah developer says the city’s ordinance is outdated and enables squatters.

Irvine Construction and Realty owns three homes on South Washington Street, two of which are boarded up and littered with graffiti. The company has been wanting to demolish the homes for months as it plans to develop a new affordable housing apartment complex.

“It’s been a hassle,” said Dan Scarlet, the company’s CFO. “The boards told the homeless people this is an empty house... We couldn’t demolish these houses without having first get a building permit to build the replacement property.”

Last week, Scarlet returned to one of the properties to find that some of the plywood covering windows to the house had been kicked in. The ceiling appeared charred with multiple large holes. Someone started a fire.

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He was visibly frustrated.

“Think of the danger this poses! The fire issues. The drug use. All these sorts of things,” Scarlet said. “I haven’t even been notified yet! So I didn’t even know [there was a fire] until I got here this morning to meet you.”

“There was six or seven people in the basement of that house,” said Orion Goff, the city’s director of building services. “Everybody was able to get out.”

Goff said Salt Lake City Council members have been debating issues surrounding the demolition of vacant houses for more than a decade.

Ordinances have been updated multiple times since 2012, first with the city council choosing to make it more difficult for developers to demolish buildings without a new building permit in hand.

Adam Herbets on Squatting in Salt Lake

The city council chose to enact the policy in response to a developer that suddenly stopped building after demolishing property in Sugarhouse. The “sugar hole” sat empty for years, beginning in 2008.

“It seems silly to make an entire policy for the whole city over one situation,” Scarlet said, “and 2008 was a financial disaster for a lot of people. It was an anomaly.”

The ordinance was updated in January 2021, making it easier for developers to demolish buildings. The current law allows developers to provide to the city a “letter of assurance” that promises residential units will be replaced on a one-to-one basis.

“It’s not a good situation to have these vacant nuisance homes,” Goff said. “The neighborhood hates those buildings, for obvious reasons.”

Irvine Construction and Realty was ultimately approved for demolition in February. Goff said he accepted the letter of assurance because the developer is replacing three homes with approximately 200 apartment units.

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Still, Scarlet said he was frustrated with a cumbersome approval process, not knowing about the letter of assurance until he had been working through the system for months. He said he believes the city’s policies enable squatters.

“I don’t think it was intentional, but we need to change this rule,” Scarlet said. “We need to get this fixed. It’s just backwards.”

"The demolition permits were not held up by the City. The conversation that they had with our staff regarding demolition on that site were preliminary to any application being filed and were informational in nature only," Goff said. "The customer was not actually in the process of getting the permit at the time that they made the call to you and to the Mayor’s Office... So, for them to say that they have been held up by our processes for any reason is inaccurate."

Irvine Construction and Realty said it was especially confused how a policy requiring one-to-one replacement of housing units would apply to a boarded-up house, which isn’t inhabitable. Scarlet argued even a vacant lot would be better than an eyesore that attracts squatters.

“You’re making a really good point, but the ordinance does not take that into consideration,” Goff responded. “The city council is very interested in making this right. They’re very focused on affordable housing... Logically thinking, like you’re doing, it’s much better to have a vacant lot than one of these nuisance properties that puts neighbors and first responders in such a bad position.”

Goff said the city’s system worked as planned, in this case, but there is still room for improvement. The city council is currently working with a consultant to draft a new housing mitigation loss ordinance.

“It needs more study, and it needs to be done in its own process,” Goff said. “I would expect in the next few months we’ll have a good idea of what that housing mitigation loss ordinance is going to look like.”

“We need to figure out a way to streamline this process and work with developers to try to rebuild and revitalize the city,” Scarlet said. “They’ve changed the zoning rules in this area to encourage this kind of development. We just need the rest of process to get caught up with the vision they had for this area.”

FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets held a live Q&A session on Facebook after his story aired:

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