After five years representing District 2, Salt Lake City Council member Andrew Johnston vacated his seat on April 21 and is taking on a new role within Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration. Johnston is now working as Director of Homelessness Policy and Outreach.
In his new position, Johnston will help guide the city’s methods of addressing homelessness and collaborate with other entities to work towards ending homelessness. “I will advise the mayor on policy related to housing and homelessness, and work with the City Council as well. It will be a dance together, where we will go back and forth on what policies could be and how to implement them effectively,” he said.
Looking back on his career in both the City Council and as Chief Strategy Officer for Volunteers of America, Johnston brings a wealth of knowledge and experience with him to apply to his new position.
“I have worked in social services for 20-plus years, and a lot of my work with VOA was centered around homelessness. I worked with all the same partners I will be working with in my new position, and the City Council has been really informative in understanding how the city works,” said Johnston.
While the ultimate goal is to end homelessness, Johnston recognizes important steps to take along the way to ensure that homelessness becomes rare, brief, and non-recurring. He plans to work with other agencies such as the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness and the Downtown Alliance in order to take these important steps.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is housing itself.
“We are short thousands of units, and we need general units out there that are low-income,” Johnston said. To address this, Johnston wants to implement more inclusionary zoning practices to make affordable housing more feasible.
“We don’t have good zoning for anything in between single-family homes and bigger, denser units, and we need that,” he said.
According to Johnston, working to ensure housing availability for all income levels across the state is a key piece of inclusionary zoning. Some of the current inclusionary zoning practices are illustrated in the affordable housing overlay project, in which the city’s planning division is working on amending zoning regulations to allow for accommodations such as additional building heights or reducing parking requirements. The project also incentivizes developers to include affordable homes in their projects rather than require it, though he doesn’t rule out potentially mandating a percentage of housing developments to be low-income units.
Johnston also prioritizes addressing additional needs that unsheltered people might have aside from housing, such as mental health services and substance abuse recovery resources. Incorporating these services into larger plans to address homelessness may lead to lasting long-term solutions for many people experiencing homelessness, according to Johnston. He also hopes to coordinate efforts to rehouse people more quickly, noting that the longer someone goes unhoused, the harder it is to find stable housing.
“We are going to have to formulate some concrete solutions around housing, unsheltered folks on the streets, and capacity issues,” he said.
His pragmatic approach to solutions is evident in his analysis of tiny home villages, one of which is approaching a proposed trial period near 1850 West and Indiana Avenue in Poplar Grove. A tiny home village is an opportunity for unsheltered folks to build a community where they can relate to and support each other. Johnston thinks the investment is certainly worth considering, but might not be the only solution, as starting something like a tiny home village comes with its own challenges—funding, maintenance, and location.
Regarding possible solutions, Johnston said, “Not any one plan is going to solve homelessness. It will have to be a combination of coordinated efforts.” Because of his existing relationships with many entities working on homelessness issues, Johnston is confident that he can effect change by coordinating more closely with them. He also includes the community at large as part of the solution, saying he considers residents’ concerns legitimate and valid.
Johnston takes pride in having represented District Two for the last five years. He describes it as a wonderful experience he wouldn’t trade for the world.
“I love my neighborhood, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I see it all, and it all matters. It’s been an honor, and it means a lot to me that people trusted me enough to elect me twice. For me, this has been one of the most humbling experiences.”
Because Johnston vacated his District Two City Council seat before the term ended, the seat was filled through an application process rather than standard election. Johnston’s influence can be seen in the applicant pool, as many of the 17 initial applicants shared Johnston’s concerns for the community and focus on housing and homelessness. Of the five finalists, which included Dennis Faris, Billy Palmer, Kate Rubalcava, Esther Jackson-Stowell, and Alejandro Puy, Denis Faris was chosen to take over the remaining term.
A resident of Poplar Grove for nearly 20 years, Council member Faris is familiar with issues affecting District 2, such as the inland port, the need for affordable housing, and public safety. He plans to work towards addressing the needs and concerns of the community in his new appointment. He has previous experience working with the VOA, Housing Connect, and The Salt Lake Chamber, which he will be able to apply to his new role as City Council member.
Faris will serve the remainder of Johnston’s term, which ends Jan. 3, 2022. The seat will be up for a vote during this year’s general election on Nov. 2.
Anyone interested in running for the Council seat can declare their candidacy between August 10 and 17. The city will use ranked-choice voting this year and will not hold a primary election.
The District 1 seat, which also covers the West Side, is up for a vote this year. See more information at slc.gov/attorney/recorder/elections/.
Council Member Faris is the brother-in-law of The West View’s Managing Editor.