BLUFFDALE — Three days shy of a court-mandated deadline, city officials have adopted a five-year plan to comply with the state’s affordable housing laws.
But critics of the proposal predicted it will not pass legal muster.
Most controversial in this rural city’s plan to add at least 376 affordable housing units is how its City Council will rezone areas to achieve that goal. With rezoning considered the lifeblood of the plan by many, the council voted Tuesday to give themselves a November deadline for making necessary changes.
But such a liberal timeline was viewed as a stalling tactic by disappointed affordable housing advocates and others who said Bluffdale’s plan lacks specifics.
"I see a lot of wiggle room with this plan," said Michael Hutchings, an attorney who successfully sued the city on behalf of Anderson Development Co. "What I see is a built-in delay. What I see is a struggle to do the minimum. I also see hypocrisy: you ask people to follow your law, but when it comes to following the state’s (laws) . . . "
Assured by Bluffdale City Attorney Kevin Watkins and a hired planning consultant that their new plan ultimately will prevail in court — unlike the city’s previous affordable housing plan that a 3rd District Court rejected last year — contented city officials ignored such criticisms.
"We want to be fair with all people, doesn’t matter who they are and what they are," Bluffdale Mayor Noell Nelson said. "We’ve gone the extra mile."
Watkins said Bluffdale’s 25-page plan "meets and perhaps exceeds," state requirements.
Many other Utah cities are closely watching how the courts respond to the first city ever taken to court for violating a 1996 state law that requires all communities to provide a variety of housing types. Many hope the outcome of Bluffdale’s case will more clearly define what cities must do to conform with affordable housing laws, which require cities to offer a certain number of housing units costing no more than $117,318 or two-bedroom apartments whose rent could not exceed $818.
The average home in Bluffdale today sells for $200,000, and more than 82 percent of Bluffdale’s residentially zoned sections are single-family homes on one- or five-acre lots. By the city’s own estimate, there are about 230 moderate-income housing units in Bluffdale, and only 13 percent of its residents are renters.
"Many of these people are teachers, police officers, firefighters . . . good, hard-working Utahns who are being excluded by exclusionary housing policies in this city," Hutchings said.
But Nelson and other Bluffdale city officials blamed developers, not themselves, for the city’s failures in affordable housing.
"These developers, they didn’t want moderate-income housing," Nelson said. "They wanted $200,000 to $300,000 homes."
The City Council announced that they have received a verbal commitment from a developer to build 1,200 affordable housing units in Bluffdale. And Councilman Wayne Mortimer issued a challenge to naysayers of Bluffdale’s plan to "bring forth some (more) developers."
But despite city officials’ optimism, their reluctance to commit to zoning changes sooner still didn’t sit well with some.
"Nine months to develop zoning that you should have developed in 1998?" said Barbara Toomer, an official with the Disabled Rights Action Committee in Salt Lake City. "That’s a long time. It’ll be four years before you have (more) affordable housing."
Council members, however, staunchly defended their time frame and didn’t budge at Hutchings’ suggestion that they bump it up to June 1.
"We have a lot of ordinances to take care of," Councilwoman Claudia Anderson said.
In a letter to the council, Richard Walker, a senior planner with the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development who freely advised Bluffdale on its new plan, told city officials he believes the plan still falls short of meeting state law.
"What you’ve got here," said affordable housing advocate Roger Monia, "is a city that doesn’t want to become a city."
Bluffdale is expected to submit its affordable housing plan to a judge on the March 31 deadline.