Tyeise Bellamy, the founder of Black Lives for Humanity Movement, visiting with unsheltered people outside the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall and Weigand Homeless Resource Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photograph by Russel Daniels for Hammer & Hope.
When I texted Tyeise Bellamy last December, she replied, “Give me a minute. I have The Tribune on the phone. They found another person frozen to death.” It made sense that a reporter would want a reaction from Bellamy on the day that a fifth person was found dead in a tent during a blast of winter chill in Salt Lake City. As the founder of an advocacy group called Black Lives for Humanity Movement, she has spent years demanding action from city officials and providing services to those living on the city’s streets. “I know all their names and all their stories,” she told me.
When I finally got her on the phone, Bellamy linked the housing crisis to redevelopment interests that have boomed in Salt Lake. Over the past nine years, thousands of apartments have been built and rents have skyrocketed. In a recent survey of nearly 2,500 residents, almost 1 in 5 reported being displaced from their neighborhoods due to rent increases. Another 13 percent said they were on the verge of moving. Rents are rising at least 10 percent per year, with no sign of slowing down. The result has been more people sleeping on the street or crowding into homeless shelters. “They’re warehousing people in shelters and trapping them into cycles of poverty,” Bellamy said. “People need permanent housing.”
Bellamy also drew a direct connection between the redevelopment agenda and policing. One campaign was known as Operation Rio Grande after the name of a former train station in a west side neighborhood. In 2017, city officials met in secret with law enforcement to devise a plan for clearing out unsheltered people and their support services from the area. A Salt Lake Tribune investigation later revealed that nearly 80 percent of the money spent on what the city called an effort to “restore public safety” and help “individuals seeking supportive services” was actually spent on arresting and jailing people. With unhoused people expelled and an 1,100-bed shelter demolished, the area is now slated for luxury apartments.
In 2022, an investigation revealed that 91 percent of a state fund that distributes grants to cities with homeless shelters, then nearing $10 million, was spent on law enforcement. Such expenditures help to explain why Salt Lake Police Department data shows that from June 2020 to June 2022, officers were called on “transient” people almost 11,000 times. But less than 1 percent of those calls were linked to serious criminal activity. “The police are being weaponized against the most vulnerable,” Bellamy said. She also told me that some people are deterred from going to shelters because they fear being arrested on warrants, often for crimes like stealing food, urinating in public, or loitering.
To understand how cities got to the point where cops are key to urban “renewal” schemes, it helps to look at history. Developers drive housing policy today thanks in part to a racist backlash against public housing. In the 1960s, civil rights activists demanded federal intervention to end housing discrimination. But President Richard Nixon used the urban rebellions of the period as justification for eliminating any direct federal role in housing. The move placated conservatives who railed against federal spending as well as white voters who rejected what they regarded as a benefit to undeserving Black people.
Conservative retrenchment continued into the Reagan era, when lax oversight and local mismanagement led to the loss of thousands of public housing units. President Bill Clinton’s HOPE VI program bulldozed public housing across the country, and cities turned to for-profit entities to provide quality, affordable dwellings. In 1998, Clinton went further by signing the Faircloth Amendment, which virtually ended federal support for public housing.
In Salt Lake, tenants and low-wage workers are also struggling. I spoke with 27-year-old Cosette Robinson, who has fought for years to find and keep an affordable roof over her head. “I work with people with disabilities. I love my job but I work hourly and don’t make much money,” Robinson said. “I’ve been kicked out of so many apartments thanks to abusive and corrupt landlords. There just aren’t many tenant protections here.” Indeed, Utah has some of the most punitive tenant laws in the country. Renters can be evicted with only 72 hours’ notice. Those evicted are liable for up to triple the amount they owe, in addition to landlords’ attorney fees.
The gentrification program is happening in a right-wing state. Republicans hold every statewide office and, in November, expanded their supermajority in the House of Representatives, where almost 9 out of 10 elected officials are also members of the conservative Mormon Church. This is a government that has outlawed rent control and barred municipalities from raising the minimum wage. State union membership is the fifth-lowest in the country.
Police violence is also relatively common. Between 2010 and 2014, killings by police were the second most common type of homicide in the state, after intimate partner violence. People of color, here as elsewhere, make up a disproportionate number of those shot at by cops.
At the same time, Salt Lake City, the state’s capital, is regarded as a progressive bastion. It has streets named for the gay rights activist Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the labor organizer Cesar Chavez. It has had a Democratic mayor for decades. And progressive voters recently elected the most diverse City Council in the city’s history, with a majority identifying as racial minorities or LGBTQ.
As a Utahn who moved back here three years ago after working as an organizer in New York City, I am in a good position to put local battles in a larger context. What is happening here is also unfolding in other cities where housing demands dating from the civil rights era have never been met. The gentrification of this city in the Wasatch Mountains — one not typically associated with leftist politics — is also worth paying attention to because there is evidence that anger about law enforcement’s role is helping to open a new front for organizing.
I spoke with Rae Duckworth, the operating chairperson for Black Lives Matter Utah. In 2019, her cousin Bobby Duckworth was killed by a cop in an incident caught on video. “Bobby was experiencing a mental health crisis,” Duckworth told me. “Do people in that situation deserve bullets? My cousin received seven.” Two years later, after the former head of BLM Utah resigned after receiving death threats, Duckworth stepped up to fill the role.
Duckworth calls police the “strong arm” of housing policy. “Breonna Taylor’s block [in Louisville] was due to be gentrified,” she said. “Fleet Block is next.” Duckworth was referring to a city-owned property on Salt Lake’s west side where artists have painted murals of people killed by cops. The area, valued at $37.5 million, is slated for development. While the city is reaching out to the community and to developers to solicit proposals, Duckworth is concerned that “the city will disregard all of our collective needs and demolish this space. They have the disgusting audacity to think that we would want a luxury building on top of these faces.” Duckworth described police as a regular presence on the west side. Officers even showed up in civilian clothes to patrol a vigil for unsheltered people who had died. “Our mayor is a gentrifier,” Duckworth told me. “And she is using all the tools she has, including the police.”
Tenants’ groups have also been influenced by a growing awareness of police violence. Ian Daxter, 27, an organizer with Wasatch Tenants United, told me that WTU started out in 2018 by protesting evictions and opposing tax incentives for luxury construction. The sense of crisis deepened as redevelopment programs that had begun in a southern suburb began to accelerate in the central city, targeting the same areas that had been redlined in decades past. “As renters living here and living with it,” Daxter said, “WTU started to see this new political economy unfold.”
George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer was another turning point. Daxter, who is white, attended an anti–police violence protest in May 2020. He described a chaotic scene as a car caravan led to blocked traffic. Some officers were initially unable to get to the site where protesters were gathering. “Militant elements were able to take control of the situation,” Daxter said.
Daxter described a “two-hour brawl” between police and about 100 protesters. Thousands of others were there in support of those who were physically confronting the police. A group flipped over a police car. Before they set it on fire, a woman climbed on top and urinated. Protesters scrawled “FTP” (for “fuck the police”) on the steps at police headquarters. One cop was hit on the head with a bat. An officer shoved a man with a cane to the ground. A 7-Eleven store was looted. City leaders had never seen anything like it. The mayor surveyed the scene from a military helicopter and ordered curfews, including one that lasted four days. The governor called in 200 National Guard troops. Dozens were arrested. At least one person was taken into custody by federal anti-terrorism officials.
A crackdown from law enforcement followed, lasting months. “People got their doors kicked in,” Daxter said. In November 2020, U.S. marshals burst through the door of a man who had filed a civil suit after his brother was shot and killed by police. The marshals later claimed they had been given the wrong address. “Activists felt like they were being followed,” Daxter said.
The protests and their aftermath provoked intense debate. Some blamed provocateurs for the violence. But Daxter disputes that. “This was Black and brown west side youth who showed up and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We are fighting the cops today.’”
The events of May 2020 inspired organizers to get what Daxter calls “more specific” in their thinking about the relationship between housing and law enforcement. “Police violence is guided by the needs of capital,” he said. “And the need of capital is redevelopment in these corridors.” In its 2022–2023 budget, the City Council approved $20 million for affordable housing initiatives and $104 million for the police department. Numbers like these pushed WTU to demand that the city move money from policing to public housing.
In 2021 Wasatch Tenants United learned that the City Council was pushing to rezone a parcel of land on the east side of downtown. The permit would allow a developer to skirt zoning rules to build a dormitory-style, 192-bedroom “rooming house” in an area formerly occupied by single-family homes. Tenants would share a kitchen and other common spaces.
To WTU, the proposal was a new low. Cosette Robinson, who joined WTU as a result of her own battles with landlords, told me that the micro apartments will not be affordable. “I currently pay $750 per month for a two-bedroom apartment in that same neighborhood,” she said. “And these single rooms will cost more than $800.”
Roger Clayton, a WTU collaborator, agrees. “There are a bunch of liberal urban planner types in this city saying rooming houses are affordable housing,” he told me. But “developers are a class-conscious group. They are always going to build for the most profit.” To Clayton, the plan is part of a neoliberal project to turn land over to developers. The rooming house “will exert upward forces on the cost of living because basic commodities like a kitchen will become luxuries,” Clayton said. WTU vowed to try to block the development, or at least to delay it.
In September, dozens descended on a meeting of the city’s Planning Commission. A group separate from the City Council, the commission was voting on the rezoning for the rooming house. One by one, WTU members rose to the podium. The people “who deliver your Amazon packages, the people who make your coffee in the morning and your pizzas late at night” are getting crushed, one said. The speaker urged the committee to vote down the proposal out of their sense of self-preservation: “Your barista’s going to have to resist the urge to spit in your coffee!” Robinson also spoke at the meeting. “Two years ago you called us essential workers. Two years ago you called us heroes,” she said. “Now you are allowing developers to profit at our expense.” Another speaker lamented the intimidating presence of an armed guard standing directly behind them.
After more than an hour of testimony and discussion, officials approved the conditional rezoning application by a vote of five to three. Chairperson Amy Barry said that she was sympathetic to WTU’s position but that the Planning Commission was bound by a state law to approve such applications. “The reality is affordability is not a legal standard. I cannot legally evaluate any application by the inclusion or absence of affordability,” she said. WTU members left the room and continued yelling from the hallway. But they knew they had lost. “The commission said there was no way they could deny the permit,” Clayton said.
Why is Salt Lake City’s Planning Commission barred from denying proposals based on whether developments will be affordable? One possible answer came from a strong supporter of the rooming house, City Council member Dan Dugan. He told me that he is concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the city. But he sees the situation differently from the members of Wasatch Tenants. “Since rooms are rented individually, rates are anticipated to be less costly than market rate for individual apartments,” Dugan said. He also told me that the market would strike the right balance between profits and affordability. “The market will play out,” he said. “Rent will become what you can get depending on the needs and wants of residents.”
But the needs and wants of residents are already not being met. I spoke to Britnee Dabb, the deputy director of the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City (HASLC), an agency struggling with a shortage of federal funds. The waiting list for Section 8 and other forms of subsidized housing is already so long that the agency has stopped adding names to it. In the past, the wait has been up to five years. Dabb is dismayed that a vast majority of public money that is subsidizing the building boom has gone to developers instead of to local nonprofits like HASLC. “There is a stigma tied to subsidized housing,” Dabb said. “So we work to change the narrative.”
The narrative is changing thanks in part to fresh anger about the way police are being mobilized. I spoke to Bill Tibbitts, the deputy executive director and a 20-year veteran of an organization that advocates for people experiencing homelessness. Tibbitts described Operation Rio Grande as particularly revealing. “Eighty police officers descended on a two-block area to chase people away. It was unprecedented,” he said. “But it didn’t solve the problem that people can’t afford rent. Some people seem to think the cops can solve this.” Tibbitts is especially troubled by a recent spike in the number of families with kids seeking emergency shelter in the state.
To most people, a home is a place to live; to developers and landlords, it is a financial investment that law enforcement protects. In Salt Lake, where that distinction is on stark display, there are signs that opposition to gentrification and displacement will continue.
Wasatch Tenants United is gearing up for the long haul. Though the battle over the rooming house was lost, the defeat was clarifying. Clayton said that the effort to stop the development failed because it had already been given the green light by the time the Planning Commission voted. Since then, WTU has done a lot of internal work reconsidering where to focus the struggle. “The next step is building capacity for collective action by tenants,” Clayton said.
Wasatch Tenants is aware that winning a different kind of city will require confrontations with powerful interests. “Eventually we need nationalization or other forms of communal housing which we know will entail expropriating from the rich,” Daxter said. “Our mission is nothing less than trampling the enemies of the working class in Salt Lake.”
In 2020, Tyeise Bellamy attended an anti-police violence protest at the State Capitol. “We were being peaceful until cops started shooting at us with rubber bullets,” Bellamy said. Since then, she feels like something has shifted. “For the first time, white people are able to see what we’ve been talking about,” she said. “Young people especially are more likely to see that Black people are part of the fabric that is Utah.” As for her battle on behalf of the unsheltered, Bellamy said, “I am a fighter. I refuse to give up.”
That determination could influence the fight for affordable housing and what happens at Fleet Block, where the murals are accompanied by text that reads: “Mourn the Dead and Fight for the Living.” Rae Duckworth and other family members of those killed by cops are devastated at the thought of losing the portraits and the surrounding community. “The state has already taken these people from us. The least the city can do is respect the space where healing is provided,” she said. Duckworth also wants more than respect. She is urging the city to invest in “a safe space with resources or transitional housing. That’s what we deserve.”
Duckworth is certain that many will join the fight. “I have so much faith and love in my people. Salt Lake shows up,” she said. “Salt Lake will show up.”
Ann Larson is a writer and activist focused on economic justice and a fellow with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.