No place to land

The housing market is broken. Can anyone afford to live in America anymore?

Britta Joslyn was at a breaking point. She’d decided to move out of her house in Heber City, Utah, after a split-up. But, finding a new home proved Sisyphean. She needed to find a rental close to her children’s school that would accommodate her eight-year-old twins and her service dog, but everything was out of her price range. Landlords were asking her to prove she made triple the cost of the rent. She couldn’t. Joslyn is a speech pathologist, a professional that makes $83,000 a year on average. She shouldn’t be in this situation. Right? 

Joslyn’s not alone in her struggle. Nearly half of Americans say housing affordability in their community is a major problem, according to Pew Research Center. Across the country, home prices are now out of reach for median wage earners in 97 percent of counties. This is a significant increase from 2021, when 69 percent of U.S. counties were categorized as historically less affordable, according to the Home Affordability Report from ATTOM, a real estate data firm.

In almost every community you consider, the housing situation is bad. Very bad. According to Moody’s home price index, home prices nationally have increased 32 percent over the past two years. The National Association of Realtors reports an even bigger jump of 39 percent. During Salt Lake City’s first phase of the Thriving in Place initiative, which was introduced in July by the Department of Community and Neighborhoods and aims to find solutions to housing displacement, nearly half of respondents knew someone who has already moved due to eviction or high housing costs. Almost 20 percent say they have had to move due to rent increases, while 13 percent are on the verge of moving due to increased costs. Close to 40 percent of respondents want to buy but cannot afford a home.

Christian Roux for the Deseret News

While rent usually increases 3 to 4 percent annually, it’s jumped a stunning 17 percent this year, and 79 percent over the past five years. Even in the face of the cooling housing market, demand is high and supply is low. A short supply of single family homes stymies homebuyers as out-of-state buyers, foreign investors and developers snatch up property. Tenants who lease can no longer afford increasing rents, and, priced out of entering the homeowning market, are left with little to no options for housing, especially because the entire Wasatch Front has become increasingly expensive. According to reports from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, extremely low-income renters in the U.S. face a shortage of approximately seven million homes.

Jasmine Walton, a marketing director at a housing nonprofit called NeighborWorks Salt Lake, spent a year trying to find a house on the west side of Salt Lake City where she grew up. She and her fiancé were beat out by cash offers from out-of-state investors. She says they were able to finally close on a house because of a down payment assistance grant, closing cost grant and an 80/20 loan — public programs that operate on local, state and federal levels that she says she might not have known about if she didn’t work in the housing industry.  

“It’s a market unlike any other we’ve had, at least in my experience, and I’ve been working on it for almost 50 years,” says James Wood, the Ivory-Boyer Senior Fellow at The University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business Policy Institute. “For homeowners, we’ve pretty much priced out the next generation. Even if you’re a household with two moderate incomes, it will be a stretch.”

The Thriving in Place study found that a quarter of the city’s population is spending more than half their monthly income on housing. “It’s very hard for (people) to live anywhere along the Wasatch Front,” says Susan Lundmark, a project manager in the city’s department of community and neighborhoods, who worked on the study. “People are doubling up, living in basements, living in cars. Or it’s possible that they’re leaving the region altogether.”

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Currently, a quarter of local renters are considered “severely rent burdened,” which means that they’re spending more than half their income on housing. That statistic extends across the region. And the nation.

A study from the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, or Freddie Mac, found that there’s a deficit of 3.8 million homes in the U.S. — a number that’s nearly doubled in the last decade, and that tracks across 47 states. Research from Freddie Mac found that the overall housing deficit increased 52 percent from 2018 to 2020, in large part because of a lack of single-family starter homes.

Across the country, that’s impacting those who are essential to our communities: educators like Joslyn, and service workers like Walton, who says that she has cousins in the Midwest who are facing the same thing. A recent study from the Keystone Policy Center, a Colorado-based nonprofit, found that fewer than one-fifth of homes across Colorado are affordable to teachers who make an average salary in their district. In Denver, teachers making the school district average of $64,000 could only afford 14 percent of the homes in the area.

Home ownership — and even simply having a roof over your head — is out of reach for more Americans now than it has been in generations. The housing market is broken, and it’s becoming increasingly hard for people in the middle of the economic pack, thanks to a complicated cocktail of supply shortages, investment developers, wage flatness, Covid-19 mobility and the weird, uneven edge of what can feel like a recession. There are tax credits and housing vouchers for low-income residents — although those are largely insufficient, too — and high-income people can ride the waves because they have more flexibility or generational wealth, but it’s squeezing the middle class.

This is a national problem, and it won’t be easy to fix. But Utah may be experimenting with one solution that could be an example to the rest of the country.

Whether that example is cautionary or inspirational depends on how it goes.

“It’s a market unlike any other we’ve had, at least in my experience, and I’ve been working on it for almost 50 years.” —James Wood, University of Utah

Most housing problems start with supply and demand. 

In Utah, the population has increased by 18 percent over the past decade and the housing stock isn’t keeping pace. The median sales price of a home has doubled over the past five years — an unprecedented change. When people can’t afford to buy, they’re pushed to renting, and yet this is happening in the face of the lowest rental availability in 20 years.

These numbers stem from a multifaceted demographic boom. Wood says that Utah has long nurtured a business-friendly climate of economic growth. The unemployment rate is around two percent, and a range of big companies — particularly in tech — have moved in. It’s also a place with a young population and a high fertility rate, so natural population growth is high, too. “We’re not a small state anymore,” Wood says.

That could lead to a strong economy, but not if wages and social infrastructure don’t keep pace. So far, they haven’t. Maria Garciaz, the CEO of NeighborWorks Salt Lake, says nonorganic competition for housing — particularly from high-income earners moving in from out of state — has pressured the local workforce and monopolized the desirable housing, “All that in-migration has priced local families out of the housing and rental market,” she says. “A good percentage of my employees here, if they don’t come from a family that has property, are struggling to find housing.”

Demand is high, and supply is insufficient in part because of long-term stagnation in the building market that started in 2000. Across the country, the National Association of Realtors says there’s a supply crisis of millions of homes, and we’re in a hard economic climate to dig out of that hole after two years of Covid-related supply crises and a significant uptick in material cost thanks to gaps in the global supply chain.

When housing stock is limited and expensive, often the only people who can afford to buy are investors, who see homes as a moneymaking venture instead of a place to live. Their presence is showing up in a few different ways. We’re seeing the rise of second home rentals, as well as short-term rentals (like AirBnb and VRBO rentals). These short-term rentals are taking over an increasingly large part of the market — an estimated 20,000 units in Utah, which equates to about half the housing shortage. 

There’s also an uptick in investor-owned housing, a change in the market that started when investment groups began buying foreclosed properties after 2008, and then renting or flipping them to make money. Now, especially during the pandemic, investors have been buying even more homes, including 27 percent of homes bought in Utah in 2021, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. There’s already a small stock of affordable housing, and developers won’t be changing that because materials are so expensive and labor is in short supply. 

“When there’s demand for a commodity that can be used as an investment, it makes it impossible for individuals,” Thomas says. “This is a troubling forecast ahead of us.” 

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That forecast is now upon us. The Pew Charitable Trusts study found that nationwide, nearly a quarter of home sales went to investors, short-term rental owners, large-scale landlords and other groups that don’t reside in their homes. A congressional report in July called out four major companies — Pretium Partners, Invitation Homes, The Siegel Group and Ventron Management — for abusive techniques on that front. These combined forces have made it nearly impossible for a middle-income American to rent or own a reasonable home.

So if market economics doesn’t work, and hasn’t for a while, and the experts say we’re staring down a troubling forecast, what can we do about it? How does policy need to change? And how can Utah (Salt Lake City in particular) be a model for other places?

“For homeowners, we’ve pretty much priced out the next generation. Even if you’re a household with two moderate incomes, it will be a stretch.”

“We really focused on what we call the three Ps,” Lundmark, from the city says. “Producing new affordable housing, preserving existing housing and protecting tenants. Without all three we’ll have a hard time not displacing people.”

She says there’s no silver bullet, and at the city level, they’re limited by state and federal regulations — some of which directly conflict with increasing density. But the city is trying to build partnerships, pressure policymakers and work with community members to find ways to change that are both pro-development and pro-tenant. They want to learn from what’s worked elsewhere, and be a model for growing cities.

One approach is to increase the housing supply. Wood says that’s tricky in a lot of ways, in part because the city itself is already dense (by regional standards), with 1,689 residents per square mile. Creating more housing is going to require building infill, reducing restrictions and changing zoning and building codes.

But that’s likely the easiest piece of the puzzle. In 2021, Utah builders and developers responded by proposing and breaking ground on a record number of rental units. “What we’ve seen in this last year is really positive,” Wood says. “We’ve seen approximately 40,000 building permits including 47 percent for single-family homes, and more high density permitted in the last year than we ever had. It’s a move in the right direction.”

To make that move as useful as possible, new residential developments that will benefit the most people are critical. And just as critical are the incentives for developers to build accessible housing instead of high-dollar luxury condos. “We need to build affordable options and then find creative ways to fund them,” Garciaz says. “We need some kind of subsidies that will help get families into housing, and rentals too, people have to live somewhere.”

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For example, NeighborWorks is working on a shared equity community land trust that will build 32 units of single-family houses and townhomes for residents that make 120 percent or less of the average mean income — which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says is $51,560 a year — to thread the needle of providing middle-income workforce housing and getting people into homes. “Some people say it’s not affordable housing, but it’s really difficult for that population because they don’t qualify for subsidized housing or down payment grants when the market is building luxury units,” Garciaz says. “One of the ways we can help them is through shared equity, which is better than zero equity when you’re trying to become a homeowner.”

“All that in-migration has priced local families out of the housing and rental market. A good percentage of my employees here, if they don’t come from a family that has property, are struggling to find housing.” — Maria Garciaz, NeighborWorks Salt Lake

Research shows there’s also a need to preserve existing housing to keep people like Walton and Joslyn in their homes and neighborhoods, to reduce the turnover of single-family homes that may turn into rental properties or be demolished for multifamily apartments.

Lundmark says the city wants to develop financial and social incentives that keep people in place. That could be anything from legal aid to financial assistance for home repairs to offsetting other costs like transportation or food, which can give residents a buffer to help them stay put. “We want to look at the whole spectrum that makes it easier for people to stay and thrive,” she says. 

There’s proof that those kinds of programs can help if they’re done right. For example, in Salt Lake City, tax credits to developers that provide incentives to develop affordable units, like the Low Income Housing Tax Credits, have helped preserve nearly 7,000 affordable rental units over the past 30 years. 

But other communities around the country show that it’s not so simple. In September, a group of homeowners in New Canaan, Connecticut, for example, raised $84,000 to fight a proposed apartment complex that would include 31 rent-restricted units for households with moderate incomes. They worry that increased density would harm property values and diminish historic city structures.

But other cities — like Spokane, Washington and Minneapolis — have instituted zoning changes that allow for greater density without pushback. But these adjustments aren’t always straightforward and come with their own drawbacks. For instance, the changes in Minneapolis were held up because of concerns about how growth will impact migratory birds and green spaces.

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“You have to consider, ‘Are the benefits of growth being shared equally?’ and right now we know they aren’t,” Wood says. Nothing will be perfect, and communities have hard choices ahead of them, but Wood says those changes can be a way to build healthier, more equitable cities, where educators like Joslyn can live where they work, and young people like Walton can build families.

During her search for a home, Joslyn doggedly called, toured and applied for any rental that might work for her and her two children.  “I couldn’t find anything anywhere, and I realized I wasn’t eligible as a single mom that wanted a two bedroom with a dog,” she says. “Landlords were asking us to show triple the posted rent. I don’t make that, working in education.” 

By luck, she ended up in a friend’s rental property in Millcreek. Her twins have their own room. There’s enough space for their dog. Her commute is more manageable these days. It’s a story that, for now, ended with a mother finding a place for her family to land. But Joslyn shudders to think about what might have happened if she hadn’t. “I would have had to stretch myself so thin.” 

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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