SALT LAKE CITY — The problem is complicated.
On the one hand, it’s getting expensive to live here, as if you needed to be reminded.
The Zillow Home Value Index says the median home price in the Salt Lake metro area rose by 11.1 percent over the past year to $352,300. Even though experts predict the market will soften a bit this year, the median price is expected to grow by another 4.2 percent.
You may expect the trend to continue.
The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah has predicted an additional 1.6 million people will move to Salt Lake and Utah counties combined by 2065. Most of this will be in the Silicone Slopes high-tech area commonly known as the Point of the Mountain.
The Gardner Institute also published a report last year that said if trends from the last 26 years continue, the median home price along the Wasatch Front would be $1.3 million in 2044.
On the other hand, people who already live here don’t want all those people to settle in their neighborhoods, especially if it’s in high-density housing.
That’s not always as shortsighted as it sounds.
Last summer, Salt Lake County briefly flirted with a developer’s plan to build a mammoth high-density project on a vacant patch of desert in an unincorporated area near far-flung Herriman. The project eventually would have stuffed 30,000 people into 930 acres.
Not surprisingly, neighbors protested. The project would have been out of character with its surroundings, and it would have overloaded roads, schools and sewage systems.
But sometimes the opposition to high-density housing is exactly as shortsighted as it sounds. In the 2017 municipal elections, some city leaders along the Wasatch Front were booted because they were seen as too favorably inclined toward it.
Clearly, apartment and condo-style projects should be zoned and built in the right way, and in the right locations. But just as clearly, many members of the general public don’t understand what is at stake.
Utah isn’t unique in that regard. Just ask anyone from San Francisco, where the median rent is $4,500 and, according to Zillow, the median home price is close to $1.4 million. Some people there vigorously protest the construction of any more high-density houses, period.
This elicited huge sighs a couple of years ago from the planning director of San Francisco, who told Bizjournals.com, “the misconception I am currently dealing with is this notion that it’s the new construction that’s causing housing prices to increase rather than the actual demand for housing that’s causing prices to increase. That’s what I find particularly frustrating.”
In other words, a lot of people have it exactly backward. This may be because many people only see rents and property values rising. They can’t immediately see what would happen if cities allowed the construction of many more high-density units over 20 years or more.
All of this raises an interesting question. Should the public, misled as it sometimes is, be allowed to overturn a city zoning decision through a referendum? And if you take away that power, how do people stop City Hall, also occasionally misled or too connected to developers, from making truly bad decisions?
State lawmakers may grapple with these questions beginning next week. Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, is sponsoring a bill that would adjust referendum laws, giving local governments the power to argue against them, which they currently can’t do. Business leaders might push to make referendums more difficult to do altogether.
A recent vote that overturned Holladay’s decision to allow high-density housing on the site of the old Cottonwood Mall is on many minds.
Balancing the people’s watchdog role against the power of elected representatives is not easy. And when it comes to growth, remember that the people who might benefit from high-density developments can’t vote because they don’t live here yet.
It’s complicated, indeed, but while we argue, those 1.6 million people already have started coming.
Growth is good. Without it, economies stagnate. But you can’t sell everyone a quarter acre any more.
If you have excess demand for something, you either increase the supply or watch as the price of that thing rises. If we don’t find the courage soon to get serious about more housing, Utah will go the way of San Francisco, and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.