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In our opinion: Yes, Utah can do something about the housing crisis

Building new units isn’t the only way to increase supply.

Construction workers work at the Garden Lofts, an affordable housing project being built in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.
Construction workers work at the Garden Lofts, an affordable housing project being built in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The near-vertical trajectory of housing costs in Utah’s urban communities is likely to continue indefinitely, so the question should not only be about how to change the trajectory, but how best to alleviate its immediate impacts.

While public and private entities are working to sharply expand the housing stock, it will be some time before supply catches up with demand.

“We’re not going to build our way out of the affordable problem,” some experts posit. It’s true housing developers are engaged in a historically high level of construction, and supply hasn’t kept pace with demand. But building new units isn’t the only way to increase supply. Changing local ordinances and zoning policies could go a long way to slow down rent increases while adding mutually beneficial outcomes. Elderly residents in a large single-family home, for example, may welcome a young couple in their basement who could help with yard work, or a new homeowner may benefit from the extra income by renting out a room to a college student.

Still, hurdles remain. If you want to build a mother-in-law apartment in Lehi, for instance, you’ll now have to pay an “impact fee” of $4,500, triple what it used to cost. Similarly burdensome regulations plague other areas. It shouldn’t be that difficult to convert existing housing to accommodate more people.

In the meantime, a large segment of the population will find itself struggling to find housing within financial reach, or in proximity to where they work. Specifically, policies that have emanated from efforts to address homelessness in Utah could be expanded to encompass those on the cusp of being homeless solely for economic reasons.

That, by the way, is not a small segment of our current demography. Studies have indicated that about 120,000 Utah households currently spend more than half of their incomes on housing. Having to pay more than 30% of one’s income for housing places them in the category of “rent-burdened.” When more than half of the paycheck goes to rent, the risk of becoming homeless increases significantly.

In the case of those chronically homeless, Utah has embraced a “housing first” philosophy. That approach could also serve the category of those residents who are only a missed paycheck or two away from losing a home. Questions that might be explored are whether that population can be reasonably identified and if any level of public expenditure would be necessary to temporarily subsidize their housing costs to maintain housing stability. A cost-benefit analysis may very well show the price of preventing the loss of a home is less than the price of providing one for someone already on the street.

The lack of affordable housing is a generator of an array of social and economic problems, not limited to homelessness. People who have to commute long distances to work because they can’t afford to live near areas of high employment contribute to air quality problems. Children whose parents struggle to keep a roof over their heads often face dietary problems as the monthly budget has little room for healthy groceries. Studies also show that cost-burdened families are unable to afford health insurance, and that the stress of hanging on to a home can lead to anxiety and depression.

It seems that in an era of a perpetual shortage of affordable housing, it is in the public interest to invest in policies that are preventive as well as curative.