Salt Lake City mayoral candidates face outbursts in forum about homelessness, housing

Sep 8, 2023, 8:55 AM

Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks at a mayoral candidate forum on housing and homelessness on ...

Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks at a mayoral candidate forum on housing and homelessness on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City mayoral candidates came together for their first forum Wednesday to discuss housing and homelessness ahead of the city’s November election.

Incumbent Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is running for reelection against former Mayor Rocky Anderson and community activist Michael Valentine. It will be the first mayoral election in the city’s history to utilize ranked-choice voting.

Wednesday’s modest affair with nearly 100 attendees was hosted by the Crossroads Urban Center, a grassroots nonprofit organization focused on serving low-income needs, at the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City.              

“The biggest reason that we started organizing things like this was that there have been election years where you wouldn’t have a candidate even say the word homeless if we didn’t organize this forum. Unfortunately, whether for good or for bad, that has changed,” said Bill Tibbitts, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center.

The forum has been hosted by the nonprofit in every mayoral election since 2007, making Wednesday’s event its fifth.

“We’ve called this an event a forum rather than a debate because we don’t want this to be about people exchanging these interviews and scoring points on each other. We want this to be an opportunity for the candidates to shine a light on themselves and how they will address the serious issues of homelessness and housing affordability because that’s much more valuable than having a noisy debate,” Tibbitts told the audience, with a slight glance to the candidates behind him.

But before long the forum quickly became just that, with candidates exchanging less than subtle jabs and settling into well-practiced talking points.

Mayors of past and present, on the future

Candidates began with their personal connections or experiences on housing and homelessness before delving into more policy-centered questions.

“My relationship to affordable housing is a personal one as I think it is for most of us, I was born into a double-wide trailer that my family lived in. And then multiple points in my life and my adult life I’ve needed easily affordable housing,” said Mendenhall.

Valentine recognized himself as a “paradoxical candidate” who has experienced homelessness himself. Anderson pointed to his previous experience as mayor at a time when “Salt Lake City and Utah were seen around the nation as an example of what other states and cities should be doing for their chronic homeless populations,” he said.

All candidates expressed their support for expanding affordable housing, providing protections to renters, adding more family housing and permanent supportive housing for those with mental and physical disabilities. While it was clear that the candidates supported similar approaches to homelessness, the clash between the candidates dominated the conversation. The mayors of the past and present compared track records and failures as the third candidate leaned on the podium in the middle.

“Salt Lake City, with our 413% rocket increase in affordable housing, has worked finally to rebuild the burn bridges have relationships that the city has suffered for decades from past few years,” Mendenhall said. “Salt Lake City is not the center of homelessness for the state of Utah. This is a statewide crisis spreading out in a few cities in the state. And the state needs to come to bear with the responsibility.”

That sentiment was quickly rebutted by the two other candidates.

“I think it’s the mayor’s responsibility to take care of all people inside Salt Lake City’s boundaries,” said Valentine, garnering a cheer from the crowd.

“I don’t know of another mayor in any major city that has a homelessness problem like we do that keeps talking about all this is the state’s problem,” Anderson added.

While there was little focus on the future, Mendenhall pointed to Salt Lake City’s Thriving in Place plan which outlined 22 strategies to prevent displacement and homelessness. The plan is scheduled for a public hearing on Oct. 3 with a vote by the Salt Lake City Council as early as Oct. 17.

The subtlety of the jabs between the candidates faded as the forum went on with the gloves coming off at the end, as the crowd began to interject. While Mendenhall was nearing her closing remarks members of the audience burst out with “This is real life and people are dying today” and “How do you sleep at night?”

The outbursts prompted a public apology from Bill Tibbitts of the Crossroads Urban Center on Thursday which read in part:

“We are opposed to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, disability status, age or religious background. Women are underrepresented in Utah politics and efforts to silence female candidates make it harder for initiatives like Real Women Run to find women who are willing to enter the political realm.

“During my 22 years at Crossroads Urban Center I have been part of dozens of nonpartisan candidate forums and we have had hecklers briefly interrupt candidates but I have never seen an incident with this kind of virulent sexism. From now on we will now have clearly stated rules, and a plan for enforcing those rules, to ensure it does not happen again.”

Homeless advocate Wendy Garvin responded to the apology, acknowledging the interjections but countering claims of sexism. The response read, in part:

“(Wednesday) night, I objected only when the mayor said something that was not true. And I am frustrated that — despite video of the debate in which you can hear many women frustrated and yelling — somehow those voices, as strong women that disagree with an elected official — were disregarded. I find this equally misogynistic, and revisionist. I think it’s critical that elected officials are held accountable for their actions, regardless of their demographics. The mayor has all the power in this situation, and she had the microphone last night. The person at the top of the power structure doesn’t get to claim discrimination.”

Related: New report shows increase in Utah children experiencing homelessness

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Salt Lake City mayoral candidates face outbursts in forum about homelessness, housing