Virginia Walton has lived in a lot of apartments and houses since she first came to the center of Salt Lake City 38 years ago, but most of them are gone now.

"Downtown used to be very vibrant and alive when I first came in," she said. "Now, we have a lot of vacant lots and a great many boarded houses."Since 1980, about 2,500 houses and apartment buildings have been demolished in Salt Lake City. Currently, 372 houses are vacant with boards over the doors and windows, according to Roger Borgenicht, director of Assist Inc., a private non-profit group that provides grants for low-income people to repair their houses.

Some see the decline in houses as a slow-moving crisis that has led to the city's steadily declining population.

Walton is chairwoman of the Central City Neighborhood Council, which gives advice to the city on neighborhood issues. She wants the city to preserve as many homes as possible in the inner city and to keep businesses and - worst of all - vacant lots, from encroaching.

"We sort of feel that once a house is gone, it's gone forever," she said. "I just feel it's real hopeless if we don't do something. Salt Lake's very life depends on preserving houses downtown."Lee King, deputy director of the city's Community and Economic Development Department, said the city is trying to balance the rights of property owners with the need to preserve houses. Some property owners argue they have the right to do whatever they want with their property, even if that means tearing down a house for a parking lot.

The city hopes to strike a balance during the next three months.

"The ultimate goal of everyone is to stop the decline due to residential out-migration," King said. "We're trying to make Salt Lake a viable community, not just an all-business community."

Borgenicht said he believes 80 percent of the boarded houses are in good enough shape to be inhabited. He would rather see those houses re-inhabited, especially by low-income people, than to see them replaced with new houses or with apartment buildings.

"We're blessed in all neighborhoods of Salt Lake with buildings that have real character," he said, adding that it hurts a neighborhood to replace those houses with buildings that don't look like they fit in.

He is studying other cities that have policies requiring people who demolish a house to pay the city a certain amount to be used for building more housing.

"We've been at a crisis point for years now," Borgenicht said, noting that the city's population has declined by almost 30,000 in recent decades. "You take the increase in police needed to deal with the increase in crime, that means fewer people are paying for more services."

Meanwhile, Walton hopes the city doesn't turn into a giant office park, but she believes retailers who try to earn a living downtown will suffer if no one lives around them.

"People aren't going to drive in from West Valley City or from West Jordan to shop," she said. "There isn't even a place to park."


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Tear-down moratorium

The Salt Lake City Council voted Thursday to halt the demolition of all residential houses for three months while it seeks a solution. The only exception will be for people who replace the demolished house with a new one.