We’re our own worst enemy when it comes to solving the housing crisis, Utah expert says
The biggest obstacle to more housing? It’s is us, Dejan Eskic says. We keep having kids and yet still fight density
As the U.S. and Utah housing markets continue to see wild prices, a Utah housing expert said he knows the pain of homebuyer hopefuls — and not just by the numbers.
“As a 30-something-year-old who is fully employed, my family and I have spent 18 of the last 24 months living in my in-laws’ basement. Not because we wanted to, but because we couldn’t find a house to buy,” said Dejan Eskic, a senior research fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, during a TEDx BYU Talk taped in March and posted online Wednesday.
This is the reality of a “severe housing crisis” facing the U.S., he said, and basement dwelling is a growing trend for not just young adults, but all adults across the country.
“There simply aren’t enough homes to buy for everybody, and housing prices are at record highs,” Eskic said.
It’s a classic supply versus demand issue. There just simply aren’t enough homes — especially in Utah, where a yearslong housing shortage pushed inventory extremely low, even before the pandemic sent the national market into upheaval.
As a result, high-demand western states like Utah and Idaho have seen record-shattering years for house sales and price increases. In Utah, Eskic and other University of Utah housing experts have warned of a “severely imbalanced” housing market as demand continues to woefully outpace supply.
And there’s not really a clear end in sight. Eskic told the Deseret News recently rising mortgage rates will likely only slow — not stop — housing price increases while pricing out even more potential homebuyers.
‘Biggest obstacle to more housing is us’
So what are the solutions? Eskic laid out several “impediments” standing in the way of meeting Utah’s ravenous housing demand.
First, Eskic urged Utahns to look inward — at our own not-in-my-backyard attitudes.
“The biggest obstacle to more housing is us,” Eskic said. “We keep having kids, but when obtainable and affordable housing is proposed in our neighborhood, we scream and shout. And that mentality is really robbing our kids of a stable financial future.”
Utah was already the fastest-growing state in the country over the past 10 years, and was already grappling with a housing shortage that fueled its affordable housing crisis long before the pandemic hit. Yes, Utah did see a spike in-migration from states like California in recent years, but it’s important to remember the majority of Utah’s population growth over the years has come from natural growth.
The housing shortage is so severe, “we had five years worth of price acceleration occur in just one year last year,” Eskic said. “Every single state saw either record increases or near-record increases, with Utah and Idaho at the top two places.”
Eskic pointed to a National Association of Home Builder’s 2022 report that showed about 70% of American households can’t afford the median-priced home of $412,505.
“This is unsustainable,” he said. “We’re on a path where our kids are really going to suffer. And we’re really kind of there already.”
Confronting our discomfort with density
While there is no one solution, Eskic said — noting that home construction needs to take advantage of technology to become more efficient and build homes quicker — another solution “has to do with us and how we grow and where we grow.”
That means Utahns need to come to grips with “our understanding of our discomfort with growth and how that’s going to impact not just us but our kids.”
Yes, construction costs and supply chain issues are aggravating the housing shortage, he said, but land costs are also a big part of the problem, having risen for at least 10 years now.
“To address the land costs, homebuilders, developers, industry experts, policymakers, academics all agree that density is a solution. But guess who hates density?” Eskic said. “Us. You. You hate density. I sometimes hate density, I just can’t admit it.”
Eskic went on to read a letter from a concerned citizen to a local Utah city council, in which the resident opposed a proposed townhome development and said they didn’t want to “live next to the kind of low-income people who typically reside in high-density housing.”
“I do not want their delinquent children attending the schools that my children attend. I do not want to deal with the increase in crime and drug use that inevitably accompanies such high-density housing units,” Eskic read from the letter. “I do not want my home values to decrease.”
Eskic called that sentiment “pretty sobering” to know Utahns think like that about other people in their community.
“Now, change is scary,” he said. “But far too often when we hear the words dense housing or apartments, our city councils are overwhelmed with anger and emotions and, frankly, a lot of misinformation.”
“So we really need to lead with empathy and understanding, and ask ourselves, ‘Why do we need cheaper housing? Who’s it for?’” Eskic said. “It’s for all of us. It’s for our community, it’s for our kids, so we can have a stable community.”
Eskic urged Utahns to get involved and be part of the solution.
“I beg you to be involved and be the reasonable voice in the room,” he said. “Density is not a scary word. We just have to find the right fit for our community.”