Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
The Overniter Motel in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017.

The decision by Salt Lake City to buy a North Temple motel that’s been a neighborhood nuisance for years and turn it into a complex with affordable housing units is a move that effectively strikes at the nexus of the area’s homeless crisis. It may not have the kind of impact that leaders anticipate will come from the newly granted $100 million Medicare waiver, but the hotel nonetheless serves as an important symbol and step in the city’s efforts to improve its struggling Rio Grande district, cracking down on crime and helping the homeless by expanding access to services and affordable housing.

The Overniter Motel has been a negative influence in the development of the western edge of downtown. It’s been out of compliance with housing codes and is a frequent stop for local police patrols. It sits in an area that’s likely to experience the next wave of gentrification, and an area where there’s opportunity to increase the stock of affordable housing. The hotel will not only help with a shortage of low-cost housing that’s forced people with limited means into temporary shelters, but it will also do so for those who need it most, repurposing a property that’s been used by people in and out of homelessness but without the security of a permanent residence. The $4 million investment needed to create a mix of housing units will be money well spent as civic leaders pursue a comprehensive blitz against problems associated with the concentration of a homeless population in the nearby Rio Grande.

The overall effort to better manage homelessness is expensive and complicated, but it’s progressing in the right direction, especially with this week’s news that the Department of Health and Human Services has now approved Utah's Medicaid waiver, said to make available an additional $100 million in services that can help at-risk populations, including many of those who frequent Salt Lake City’s homeless services.

Fundamental to the ultimate success of the Rio Grande efforts will be making more homes available to more people, especially to those of limited means who work downtown. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates Utah has a shortage of about 47,000 affordable units. Plans underway by the city to rebuild the Overniter Motel as well as another motel on State Street and to develop additional properties elsewhere may bring upward of 700 new units online in the coming months — modest but important progress in expanding the low-income housing base.

The city has set aside $22 million to go toward affordable housing, and that means the city is committed to playing in the local housing marketplace in a substantial way, for good reasons. With housing costs soaring, there is little incentive for developers to create low-income properties. With money available to make subsidies and other projects happen, what’s needed now is for the mayor’s office and city council to agree on a comprehensive policy that will guide their relationship with developers and other interests as it moves forward.

In addition to larger affordable housing projects, many advocates call for dispersing the housing more seamlessly throughout communities to avoid the stigma that all too often is associated with low-income districts and to better integrate economically disadvantaged youth to the benefit of the broader community.

The ongoing debate at City Hall over how that policy should come together is a healthy exercise. The city must be careful that it spends its money wisely and partners with developers in a way that benefits civic interests. Increasing the stock of affordable housing is indeed in the city’s interest and the decision to buy and renovate the Overniter Motel shows leaders are willing to take decisive steps in that direction.