As someone who grew up on a cattle farm in rural Weber County, Turner Bitton said moving to Salt Lake City was “always the goal.”

But that was easier said than done.

He tried to make the move in his early 20s, roughly 10 years ago, but the now 32-year-old said he couldn’t find a place to rent at the time. He tried again in 2015, but then couldn’t find a home to buy within his budget.

Then, in 2018, he was finally able to make it happen when he found a single-family home in the west-side community of Glendale with a price tag of $212,000. He closed the deal, and just like that he became a Salt Lake City resident.

In 2018, home prices were already steadily ticking up — but it was well before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an unprecedented housing frenzy across the nation and in Utah, which accelerated housing prices to head-spinning new heights.

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Now, as mortgage rates hover around 7%, affordability issues have sharpened to even more painful levels. When mortgage rates crossed 6%, the higher rates combined with stubbornly high prices priced out around 75% of Utahns, according to calculations by Dejan Eskic, a senior research fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute and one of Utah’s leading housing experts.

Bitton considers himself lucky. Just two months ago, he said his next door neighbor’s house sold for $425,000, more than double what he paid.

Cottage court-style homes originating from 1929 in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Even before the pandemic housing frenzy, Utah’s stubborn housing shortage and the state’s rapid population growth are key culprits behind the state’s sharp home price growth. Even though Utah saw a massive housing boom in 2021, the state’s housing shortage persists to the tune of 31,000 units, according to a June report commissioned by the Salt Lake Board of Realtors and written by James Wood, an Ivory-Boyer senior fellow at the Gardner Policy Institute.

Housing affordability. Growth. Quality of life. All of these issues are intertwined — and are among the top concerns for Utahns as they watch homes being built all around them. For existing homeowners, it’s fear about how development will impact their neighborhood traffic, property values and safety. For renters or perhaps young Utahns stuck living with friends or family members, it’s fear that they’ll never be able to afford the American dream of owning their home.

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It’s an issue that’s also top of mind for Bitton, who has served as Glendale Neighborhood Council chairman for several years now. Now, he’s taking on another role — one that he considers vital for the future of Utah’s capital city and the larger conversation about Utah’s daunting housing problem.

Now, Bitton is taking on the role as executive director of the new advocacy group SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors. The group’s goal is to change the conversation around housing — and to advocate for policy solutions to address Salt Lake City’s housing affordability crisis. 

Bitton worries that if something doesn’t happen, he may be one of the last of his friend group to be able to afford to live in Salt Lake City — and the implications of that go beyond his social life.

“We just do not have enough housing, and people feel fundamentally disempowered and exploited in the housing market,” Bitton said. “I worry if we don’t take action now that we’re going to pull the ladder up and there’s not going to be space for people who want to be here.”

Cottage court-style homes in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Gentrification is here

As homebuyers jockey to live in Utah’s capital city, it’s had sweeping impacts to neighborhoods and who can — or can’t — afford to live there. Gentrification is permeating Salt Lake City.

That’s according to a study called Thriving in Place, a city-led initiative that surveyed nearly 2,500 residents about how they’ve been impacted by gentrification across the city, as well as ideas to help address it. The survey, published in July, found:

  • “Displacement in Salt Lake City is significant and getting worse,” and there are “no ‘more affordable’ neighborhoods” where lower income families can move once they’re displaced.
  • As Salt Lake City’s population continues to grow, there are simply “not enough housing units overall, and a significant lack of affordable units for low-income families.”
  • A significant majority — 81% — of respondents expressed moderate to very high concern about gentrification and displacement.
  • Almost half of the city’s renter households are rent burdened, or are spending over 30% of their income on housing, leaving them vulnerable to housing instability. Almost 20% of respondents said they had to move due to rent increases, while 13% said they’re on the verge of moving due to increased costs.
  • Displacement impacts people of all races and ethnicities, “but it has disproportionate effects on people of color.” And patterns of displacement reflect historic patterns of discrimination and segregation, aligning with areas that were redlined in the past.
  • Almost 40% said they want to buy a home but can’t afford it. That’s trapping those renters, which is putting further pressure on rentals because they’re able to pay more than lower income households.
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How should Salt Lake City solve its housing problem?

To Bitton, the conversation around Utah’s housing crisis is “broken” because it’s dominated by “zero-sum logic” or a “yes or no” debate. 

When zoning changes or higher-density projects are proposed, city leaders are inevitably flooded with neighbors fearful that the proposed changes would change the character of their neighbors, lead to traffic jams, bring more crime to their areas and reduce their property value.  Some studies, however, have shown that increased density can actually improve property values.

The sentiment is commonly referred to as NIMBYism or “not in my backyard.” Bitton said his group, at face value, does seek to counter the loud NIMBYs — but not in a combative way.

Instead, they aim to “move the conversation beyond ‘yes or no’” and help pass policies that pave the way for different housing types — not just single-family homes or apartments — to help show Salt Lake City residents that “missing middle” housing types that are more dense than single family homes but less dense than apartment buildings can actually improve neighborhoods, not disrupt them. 

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The Thriving in Place study has called for a set of policy actions, including some the Salt Lake City Council is slated to consider this month. 

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Bitton’s group has prioritized five of those policy actions to accomplish by the end of the year. They include: 

  • A “missing middle” policy change, or the RMF 30 Zoning changes, which aims to clear the way for more diverse kinds of multifamily housing that result in more density than single-family detached homes but less density than mid-rise apartment buildings. These housing types would include duplexes, townhomes, cottages and other residential buildings types that Salt Lake City’s zoning currently restricts.
  • Approval of the Other Side Village in west-side Salt Lake City.
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Pass Accessory Dwelling Unit proposed code changes to allow more residents to build housing types like mother-in-law apartments or tiny homes on their lots or in their homes.

Bitton said SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors only just launched as a small group, but he’s inviting Salt Lake City residents from all walks of life and backgrounds who care about helping solve the city’s housing affordability crisis to get involved.

More information is available at the groups website at slcneighbors.org

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