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Thomas Wright: While Utah grows, the housing market is lagging behind

Homes near completion at C.W. Farms, an Ivory Homes development in Magna, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The Salt Lake City metro area is the third-most competitive housing market in the nation, according to a July ranking by Redfin, behind only Boston and San Diego.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series by Thomas Wright discussing Utah’s affordable housing crisis. Read the first part here.

In late August, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints withdrew its application to rezone an area of Tooele County to allow for more affordable housing surrounding a future temple location. The vast majority of the proposed housing was single family detached homes. But community members collected enough signatures to leave the rezoning question up to voters on a referendum. Rather than pursuing a political fight through the election, the church pulled the proposal.

While I continue to support local decision-making on land use, we must recognize that the “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) mentality is what really caused the Tooele County housing plan to die. What happened in Tooele makes me wonder how hardened we have become with an NIMBY attitude. I am starting to question if anyone or any organization can break through this mindset.

Surely we believe in providing more affordable single family housing options in Utah. But if leaders, influencers and prominent organizations can’t convince citizens of the need for affordable housing, maybe we need to question if we as citizens are truly committed to live up to the principles we profess to believe.

“NIMBYism” is one of the great barriers to meeting our housing needs. It manifests in the form of strict zoning laws, and political pressure on elected officials who in turn, limit approval of healthy growth of new housing stock to the detriment of the greater community. For this to change, Utahns must become more comfortable with medium density housing within residential communities.

Naturally, citizens don’t want their nice, small community bombarded with all sorts of outsiders packed in townhomes and apartment buildings. But this is simply a misunderstanding of what affordable housing looks like.

Medium density housing — not high density — such as condominiums, townhomes and even small-lot detached single family homes can fit seamlessly within traditional single family home neighborhoods while supplementing the traditional single family stock. This doesn’t mean rent-controlled low income high-density housing projects. Instead, these dwellings provide a modern housing solution that young working professionals — many of whom have been priced out of the traditional single family housing market — and retirees are embracing. They meet the needs of those who want a low maintenance, nice and affordable place to live.

Large-lot single family detached homes are often the preferred option for homebuyers. But if we don’t have enough medium density options, it messes with the entire natural housing cycle. Empty nester retired folks who don’t have nice townhome or condo options won’t leave their single family homes, preventing households with growing families from buying that home. And if these families don’t have the option to upgrade, renters won’t be able to break into homeownership of these smaller, more affordable options. Investing in sufficient housing stock for each step of the cycle is critical because without it, stagnation in some sectors of the market will be inevitable as inventory decreases, prices increase and demand outstrips supply.

Accessory dwelling units (ADU) is another solution. ADUs allow existing homeowners to rent a portion of their home. They’re a great option for homeowners who want to provide a living space for their aging parents or adult children. Under this model, a retired couple needing to make some extra cash to afford escalating property taxes could rent part of their home’s footprint to a university student. ADUs are not duplexes, and the owner of record must reside in the property. But some local governments in Utah ban them — or regulate them so much that it’s not worth pursuing for homeowners, leaving large areas of existing homes vacant.

Utah’s population has grown more than any other state in the last decade, and is expected to nearly double in the next 50 years. Our great state is attractive for obvious reasons, and we can keep it that way, even with the growth. We need to meet the housing demands of today, and prepare for our growing children, and transplants who will inevitably move here. But strict zoning laws and NIMBYism have made it almost impossible to build fast enough to keep up with the needs of our state.

State and local leaders must address the NIMBY mentality that shapes the laws by quelling myths about dangers of affordable housing and embrace structural changes that come with a growing state and economy. It’s important for Utahns, along with state and local leaders, to think of the housing market like a staircase. Each step needs to have sufficient inventory for the entire market to function properly. Without sufficient inventory in one part of the market, it creates missing steps that makes reaching homeownership much harder for Utah families. Building missing middle housing stock will help all Utahns find more affordable housing options.

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.