It was a whirlwind, three-day trip to Washington, D.C., for Clark Ivory and his team. Almost to the hour, the itinerary was jam-packed with all things housing.

What are the biggest hurdles to obtaining housing, not just in Utah but across the country? What can cities do to knock down those hurdles and encourage affordable solutions? What can homebuilders and other members of the private sector do? What can Congress do?

What can we all do to help more Americans obtain the American dream of homeownership — instead of standing around and pointing fingers at what we can’t control? And rather than buckle to uncertainty and fear gripping today’s shifting housing market, how can it be seized as an opportunity?

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That was the focus of this trip to Washington last month for Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest homebuilder, and Abby Ivory, his daughter, who is also managing director of Ivory Innovations, a nonprofit housed at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah focused on promoting housing solutions.

As a homebuilder, Ivory told the Deseret News in a recent interview the coming year is expected to be a challenging one as higher interest rates throw ice water on the market. But for a growing state like Utah, he expects its healthy job economy to help continue to fuel housing demand — and with prices expected to remain high, he said builders and other industry partners will need to innovate to help bring the cost of housing to more obtainable levels.

“We’re going to have to allow greater density. We’re going to have to allow new innovations. New plan concepts. New construction techniques. New financing. New public-private partnerships. Hundreds of new ideas need to come forward,” he said.

A problem as big as a national housing crisis can’t and won’t be solved in three days — but Clark and Abby Ivory partnered with the Urban Institute to put each of their top 10 finalists for the Ivory Prize — which awards up to $300,000 each year to promising housing innovators across the country — up on a stage during a half-day symposium in Washington to spotlight their ideas for the rest of the country.

Clark and Abby Ivory hope the prize winners’ ideas will challenge the housing industry and maybe, eventually, force it to change if the strategies span across the country.

That could be changing the way appraisers value homes with a more data-driven focus, rooting out predatory lending practices that disproportionately affect low-income families, breaking down barriers for backyard accessory dwelling units, passing 100% affordable housing overlays in more cities across the country and clearing the way for more off-site, modular housing construction.

“We’re encouraging innovation. We’re encouraging other cities and states across the country to look into them,” Clark Ivory said in an interview during a car ride to the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for a flight back to Salt Lake City, following an afternoon of touring a variety of new townhomes throughout the D.C. area.

Staff from Ivory Innovations tour new town houses in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. | Katie McKellar, Deseret News

Is higher density housing the answer?

Ivory said he’s looking to build more townhomes in Utah, where housing and land costs have pushed larger single-family homes out of the price ranges for a majority of Utahns. This year, as mortgage rates have pushed beyond 6%, some days 7%, it’s priced out more than 75% of Utahns from affording the state’s median priced home, according to calculations by Dejan Eskic, a leading housing expert at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

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Higher density housing — often a four letter word for Utahns who grew up in or already own single-family homes and don’t want to see their neighborhoods change — is one solution, Ivory said, but it’s not the only solution.

He said homebuilders also need to innovate with new technology and construction methods, as well as find a way to build housing types that are not just more affordable, but also appealing. Homes that enhance neighborhoods, not detract from them.

“As I drive through the D.C. area and see all these beautiful townhome projects, I think ‘Wow that’s probably not something that we’re just pivoting to for the next year or two, it’s probably something we’ll stay committed to over the long haul,’” Ivory said, “because that’s going to be one of the important solutions to figuring out how to deliver at a more affordable price point.”

Meeting with Romney

The day after the Urban Institute symposium, Ivory and his team went to Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s office for a scheduled meeting to discuss policy decisions they think could help. To their disappointment, Romney was unable to attend due to Senate Republican leadership elections, but his team rescheduled it as a virtual meeting via Zoom.

During the 30-minute discussion with Romney, the Ivory team introduced their prize winners and their innovations, as well as outlined a list of policy strategies they’d like to see advanced. Ivory also told Romney his team wants his support on a number of bills that have been introduced in Congress, as well as find a “champion” for innovative housing solutions.

“Housing is a big part of America’s economy, and having affordable housing — housing affordability at every level — is what keeps us competitive,” Ivory said. The fact that more than three-quarters of Utahns can’t afford the state’s median priced home shows how hard the situation has hit Romney’s home state.

“That means we’ve got a big issue,” Ivory said.

Romney listened politely, but noted he doesn’t sit on a housing committee so he’s not familiar with any legislation currently being considered that would deal with housing issues. However, Romney said there’s “no question that there is a nationwide shortage of housing that’s affordable.”

Romney asked if there are states or cities “where there is not a problem of affordable housing ... that we can learn from,” other than “those that are shrinking.”

Ivory said there are cities “that have done a lot to make a difference in housing affordability, whether it be going through massive rezoning that allows for more flexibility,” and plenty of cities are engaging in more “public-private partnerships” to help facilitate projects, in some cases on land owned by a state, city or school district.

Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, speaks with Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s staff during a visit to Washington, D.C.
Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, speaks with Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney’s staff during a visit to Washingto, D.C., Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. | Katie McKellar, Deseret News

He also pointed to Oregon, which effectively ended single-family zoning, and cities including Minneapolis that have nixed single-family zoning and now allow triplexes by-right, or more through a more streamlined process, as well as Utah’s 2021 law to make accessory dwelling units that are internal or attached to a single family dwelling permitted uses.

“But there’s a lot that still needs to be done,” Ivory said.

“Most of housing is local,” Ivory added, but “when housing stuff does come up” in Congress, he urged Romney to “contact us, and we will quickly help (your staff) understand ramifications of any legislation that could positively or negatively impact housing.”

Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, left, and Jenna Louie, director of strategy and operations at Ivory Innovations, tour new town houses in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. | Katie McKellar, Deseret News

Hurdles for modular construction

Off-site modular construction, in particular, could benefit from more standardization and “national oversight so we can build more efficiently,” Ivory told Romney. “Most countries have housing standards and codes in place that allow someone to go across any part of that country and build what they want to build.” But the U.S. has a “very fragmented landscape” when it comes to modular home building regulations.

Modular builder Vaughan Buckley, CEO of Volumetric Building Companies, the construction and design winner of the 2022 Ivory Prize, told Romney many communities have approached housing affordability well, “but unfortunately they aren’t in the U.S. in most cases.”

He said they’re in places like the U.K., Spain and Scandinavia, “where they build up to 85% of their housing in factories,” while the U.S. builds “95% of it on-site with inefficient and high cost labor.”

“There have been really incredible programs with public private partnerships that have accelerated housing usage in areas that don’t have as much respect as the U.S. has for states’ rights,” Buckley said. “There are ways that we can maybe create universalization or standardization at the manufacturing level, rather than trying to impinge on states’ rights for developments or zoning or regulation and things that are very private to those states as part of our system of government.”

Ivory has been eying Buckley’s company for a modular housing project in Utah, but without a factory based in the state, the cost of transporting the modular units could prove challenging for off-site construction. VBC currently has a factory based in Pennsylvania and bought one in California. It’s looking to bring another one somewhere to the Mountain West, either in Utah or Colorado.

If Utah had a modular construction factory, it could build housing for other states like Nevada. But Buckley said that could be threatened if the U.S. Department of Labor’s reinterpretation of the Davis-Bacon Act includes construction of modular buildings.

“It’s potential overreach from DOL ... in a way that could take work away from states like Utah where factories can produce housing for other states,” Buckley said. “We’re one of the only industries that allows construction to be decentralized. ... It’s the only opportunity that Utah would ever have to build housing for Nevada, for example, and by imposing Nevada wage rates on a Utah factory, you prevent that from happening.”

Romney said attempts to expand the Davis-Bacon Act is “a real issue,” and agreed that manufactured housing in the U.S. faces “many challenges that have not been overcome yet.” Resistance, he noted, comes from not just Republicans and Democrats, but also from states and cities that are wary of the federal government overseeing planning processes.

Kent Colton, former CEO of the National Home Builders Association and a member of the Ivory Prize Advisory Board, said Romney’s “absolutely right,” that “regulation resistance is probably one of the biggest challenges we face nationwide.”

“But I would just say in the last four or five years because of the housing shortage, there is a real recognition that the states and the local governments need to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem,” Colton said.

Abby Ivory, front center, managing director of Ivory Innovations, and Clark Ivory, second from right, CEO of Ivory Homes, speak with Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney’s staff during a visit to Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. | Katie McKellar, Deseret News

Housing legislation to watch

There is already some legislation that’s been proposed in Congress, Colton said, that could incentivize cities to “be on the side of removing those barriers.” He told Romney there could be “bipartisan support you could be helpful on. So there is some action, I would say probably more than we’ve ever seen before, just because of the crisis that we have on affordability.”

More specifically, those bills are:

Romney said he’s interested to see what could come forward, but since he’s been in the Senate there’s been no legislation related to housing that has come up for consideration. “So if there’s something being worked on now, I’ll become more informed.”

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Romney is also a co-sponsor for legislation proposed earlier this year by Utah Sen. Mike Lee to allow state or local governments to buy parcels of federal land at a reduced price to address housing supply and affordability. The proposal would require the property be used for housing, subject to a density requirement and protects against development of expensive second homes.

After the 30 minutes passed, Romney told the group he was needed at another meeting, but thanked them for their insights. He told Ivory, “I’ll very much keep you in mind” as housing policies crop up.

“We need a champion,” Ivory said, “and perhaps over time we can make you one.”

In the meantime, Ivory said, “we’ll continue to push the ball down the road and see what we can do to make an impact on housing affordability.”