As the CEO of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty and an active real estate broker with clients at all price points, I have seen firsthand the challenges and demands on the Utah housing market. I’ve specifically seen families who cannot locate affordable housing. This was an issue that was raised frequently in my recent run for governor.
Utah has become an increasingly desirable place to relocate, especially among those stuck quarantined in coastal states with the highest cost of living in the country. Who can blame them? We all know Utah is an amazing place, from our unparalleled natural beauty to our thriving economy and business-friendly regulatory and workforce conditions.
While the pandemic may have temporarily slowed Utah’s economic growth, it has not slowed down our housing market or the increase in housing costs. New home year-over-year prices are up 25% in the past five years, according to a recent Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute panel on Utah’s housing shortage. In the second quarter of this year, prices were up 3.5%.
Unfortunately for prospective homebuyers and renters, the cost of housing in Utah continues to be a serious crisis for many households despite the good faith efforts of state lawmakers and local elected officials over the past few years.
If the problem isn’t solved, our children won’t be able to afford to stay in the communities where they grew up. Even if Utah were to somehow successfully stop anyone else from migrating here, new household creation for the children and grandchildren of current Utah residents alone would continue to drive a shortage of affordable housing options for all.
At the beginning of this pandemic, the state was short by 53,100 homes, putting thousands of families in a tough spot of trying to find housing already. Utah is among the top five states in the West in terms of housing price increases. The pandemic and economic slowdown has made the problem even worse.
What can we do? The obvious answer is to do whatever we can to incentivize the building of more housing of all types and price points. The difficulty is finding the balance between Utah’s housing needs, respecting private property rights, local zoning laws, impact fees and the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality that is part of human nature.
No one wants a brand-new high rise in their backyard, and they’ll go to great lengths to ensure their city council prevents that from happening through zoning laws and other legal avenues. Eventually, this NIMBY mentality will ensure the whole Wasatch Front will be spoken for in terms of preserving mountain views — it’s already happened in some cities. At the same time, most Utahns can agree that the answer is not unchecked urban sprawl and the resulting astronomical infrastructure costs and long commute times.
The state legislature has made progress in the past few years, notably with SB 34 which incentivized local governments to take steps on allowing more affordable housing options within their municipalities. But local governments should go beyond this plan and create even more land use development tools for needed housing projects.
Cities must recognize that local zoning is one of the most significant roadblocks toward building more homes and stabilizing Utah housing costs. They should make it a top priority to find ways to incentivize building more of the “missing middle” multi-family housing stock, such as duplexes, townhomes and medium-to-high density condominium projects. This is the most practical solution to build strong, stable communities with the benefits that come from homeownership. And it helps avoid the costs of urban sprawl that is the unintended consequence of zoning laws that are hyper focused on continuing large-lot single-family zones.
Another issue that local governments face is balancing impact fees with sustainable growth. Localities often rely on impact fees to fund necessary infrastructure, but unless done prudently, the cost will just add to the problem of families getting priced out of the market — even with new infrastructure.
Utah’s affordable housing problem is a complex one that requires a multifaceted solution. Over the next four weeks, I will be delving into various ways on how local governments, and the state, can best address the looming problem of the housing shortage. If we don’t act soon, everyday Utahns will be overwhelmed with growth, and priced out of the very state they call home.
Thomas Wright is the CEO of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty, which has 14 offices serving all of Utah. He was formerly the Utah Republican Party Chairman, Republican National Committee (RNC) vice chairman and a candidate for governor of Utah in 2020.