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Housing in the middle: What we want and what we can afford

Looks matter in housing, new survey finds

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Apartments and town houses on Traverse Mountain Boulevard in Lehi are pictured on Aug. 11, 2021.

Apartments and town houses on Traverse Mountain Boulevard in Lehi are pictured on Aug. 11, 2021. A recent report focuses on the issue of middle housing in Utah, which is seen as a critical means of releasing pressure on the state’s housing crunch.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When it comes to middle housing, you’ve got to have style.

So says the latest report from the Utah Foundation, an independent research group, that shows in new surveys that 72% of respondents say “style is the most important factor in their housing preferences.”

And the style is?

You guessed it, single-family detached units, extra points if the garage is not visible.

While Utahns’ preference for single-family homes seems like a statement of the obvious, the report also fleshes out a number of nuances, even paradoxes, that may give land-use authorities and housing advocates a better sense of how to proceed with filling the “45,000-door housing gap,” the number of Utah home seekers who according to analysis from the foundation have been elbowed out of one of the hottest housing markets in the country by runaway costs stemming from record low interest rates, supply chain back logs, and a burgeoning population. 

The report, Utahns’ Development Preferences, released this month, is the third installment in a larger study that examines “Missing Middle Housing,” a class of multifamily housing options that fall between single-family homes and large apartment complexes. Popular examples include side-by-side duplexes, cottage courts and townhomes, which along with other middle housing are considered critical to relieving pressure on the state’s housing crisis.

Yet middle housing projects have met with resistance as many neighborhoods lament increases in density of any kind. The study sought to tease out the finer points of NIMBY objections by having survey respondents view images of different homes and developments before asking them to identify which would “make a good addition” to their neighborhoods, defined as the area within a five-minute walk from a respondent’s home.

The survey’s visual emphasis helped researchers isolate important factors of preference, which yielded a compelling finding: multifamily developments, the researchers believe, will garner more support if they follow the right designs.

“If a development looks like something that mirrors the kind of style they’re familiar with traditionally, people don’t mind as much” when it comes to adding additional housing in their neighborhoods, said Shawn Teigen, the report’s author.

“Utahns’ preference for the appearance of single-family homes suggests that middle housing will meet with greater acceptance if developed in a manner that mimics the style and scale of single-family dwellings,” the study concludes.

The survey’s findings identify where people may be willing to meet in the middle — somewhere between what they want and can afford — and gives guidance to policy makers eager to generate housing stock without rocking the NIMBY boat by providing encouragement to explore options beyond single-family, detached home developments which alone can’t alone rescue Utah from its spiraling housing woes, Teigen explained.

The report’s findings, however, are short of a mandate, and leave intact a handsome sample of disagreement and contradiction. For instance, though 60% of respondents support more affordable housing options in their neighborhoods, fewer than half were willing to accept middle housing, and 18% were strongly opposed.

“People have a lot of conflicting interests. They want to live close to work, and live by a grocery store, and have bike lanes and trails — but they also want to have large homes with large yards, but there are trade offs,” said Teigen. “People don’t want more apartments in their city. But when you phrase it as an aspect of housing affordability, they can start to see how it’s important.”

The foundation’s work may help build a bridge between supply-side housing advocates and established communities who fear that increasing density will undermine neighborhood character. The work indicates NIMBY attitudes will soften, at least in theory, if prospective developments “have the appearance of single-family homes,” suggesting bungalow aesthetics may offer a serviceable compromise between home builders and longtime residents.

The issue in the survey where Utahns appeared most evenly divided related to type and price range; half prefer housing in their neighborhoods to be a similar style and price-range, while around 40% said they would prefer a variety of prices and types.

Although, advocates emphasize that middle housing is a phenomenon germane to more than size and price range. Rather, it’s hoped to be a class of development oriented around lifestyle and community, able to accommodate changing demographics and facilitate neighborhood walkability.

“A big part of middle housing is that it has a walkability element to it. If you have a school nearby, and a grocery store, and park, and you can ride your bike — those are all things that we aim for when promoting middle housing,” said Teigen, who lauded the Daybreak community in South Jordan as an example.

Price range, however, is top of the mind for most Utah renters and homeowners. The report notes that more than half of current homeowners say they could not afford to buy the home they live in today, a belief that squares with new figures released this week from the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, which say statewide housing prices increased in the last year by 27%, blowing by the 43-year-old record and bringing the median price of single-family homes sold in Salt Lake County in 2021 to $533,000.

Filling in the “missing middle,” the foundation says, will help.

Middle housing, of course, is not new. In fact, the foundation’s analysis of residential housing permits indicates a growing shift from single-family to middle housing projects in major markets across the state, including in Salt Lake County, where 32% of new residential units fall into the category of middle housing compared to 24% for single-family detached. The trend hasn’t taken everywhere — for instance in Washington County, Utah’s fastest growing county, anchored by St. George, single-family detached housing units are still the dominant style of expansion.

One such example of a middle housing project is the proposed Capitol Park Cottages at F Street and Capitol Park Avenue in the Salt Lake City Avenues neighborhood, where Ivory Homes is seeking approval for a subdivision that would see 19 single-family detached units, each with its own anticipated internal accessory dwelling units, all on a 3.2-acre parcel.

Projects like these are sensible not just for adhering to single-family-home aesthetics, but also because they are less expensive per square foot than mid-rise and high-rise alternatives, the foundation claims, owing to the fact that they are “stick-frame, wood-constructed units, with lower costs for materials and simpler construction parameters,” making them a smart move at a time when the cost of building materials is rising in part from supply chain backlogs of building materials from China, where the U.S. sources 30% of its construction materials.

According to the survey, 46% of respondents would accept middle housing in their neighborhoods; 33% of respondents oppose middle housing; and the remainder are neutral. These and other findings from the Utahns Development Preferences study offer ideas for leaders grappling with the ongoing housing dilemma.

Even so, while the middle is key, it isn’t everything.

“Middle housing itself isn’t the solution to the housing crisis. Accessory dwelling units aren’t the solution. Apartments on their own aren’t the solution. Single family homes aren’t the solution. It’s all of these things — we need all of this stuff,” said Teigen.