Political wishes are like the snowflakes that fell here last week. They cause a lot of stir and excitement for awhile, then melt harmlessly away.
So it is with the "official" concerns about affordable housing along the Wasatch Front. They are, at the moment, nothing but wishes, and they will remain that way until someone decides to force the issue.Meanwhile, we can expect more stories such as the one last week out of Washington. Those of us who safely own homes bought during the years when prices were low and demand was scarce were jarred back to reality by a study from the National Association of Home Builders. Out of 195 metro areas surveyed nationwide, the Provo-Orem area finished 185th in terms of affordable housing. The Salt Lake-Ogden area wasn't far behind, finishing 181st.
The study examined housing prices in each area in relation to average incomes. In Provo-Orem, the average family earns $41,800 per year, and the median house price is $139,000. In Salt Lake-Ogden, families earn a little more - $47,700 - but the median home price is $155,000. People who bought when prices were low are sitting pretty, but anyone trying to break into the market faces a formidable task.
Why is this important? Simply stated, it means this area is seeing a widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and that has many ramifications. All communities need to replenish themselves to thrive. That means young families need to establish footholds so they can begin feeling part of the community and so they will want to remain.
Right now, one-third of the people who rent in Utah can't afford the fair market price of a one-bedroom apartment. For them, the only choice may be to scramble for part of the scarce public assistance money, with all of its indignities, or to move elsewhere.
Of course, the free market sets the price of housing. As demand increases and supplies dwindle, prices rise. I, for one, would never advocate that government meddle with the free market. But the trouble is, governments already are meddling.
The Wasatch Front is divided into several small cities. As growth has become an issue in recent years, many of these cities have altered their zoning laws to encourage, and in some cases require, that new housing developments be upscale. They have little incentive to do otherwise.
Expensive homes raise property values. That, in turn, leads to somewhat higher revenues from property taxes, although Utah law limits this growth. It also establishes a city's reputation as a desirable place to live. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, most of us tend to think wealthier communities are safer communities, and a lot of cities regard apartment buildings the way they do junk cars on a front lawn.
Gov. Mike Leavitt understands this problem and its consequences. He has challenged Utah's cities to abandon their elitist policies. But urgings won't be enough. Earlier this month he declared "Utah Affordable Housing Day" and used the occasion to drum up support for a state housing trust fund that now has $21 million to loan for multifamily housing projects. But that won't cover much.
What is needed is some state action with teeth in it. Two years ago, state lawmakers almost caught this vision. They passed a law that requires cities to adopt a moderate income housing plan by the end of 1998. The law defines moderate income as 80 percent or less of the median gross income. Given the survey out of Washington, that may be setting the sights too low.
Trouble is, lawmakers forgot to put any bite into the law. When Dec. 31 rolls around this year, no one will be punished for disobeying it. My guess is that on Jan. 1, the law and the affordable housing plans will have melted like last week's snowballs.
I'm not suggesting the state should meddle into city zoning laws, nor should it tell home builders what to charge. As long as the market will bear high prices, they will continue to be with us. But it would be perfectly OK for the state to provide incentives. Why not redo sales tax formulas and give a little larger share to the cities who either encourage developers to build low-end housing or who help establish partnerships with banks who can offer low-interest loans and other incentives to the needy?
Without this, the gap will only continue to widen, with unhealthy consequences, and Utah's metro areas will continue to slip down the list of affordability.