The cost of living in Utah — thanks to expensive housing and inflation — is among the top concerns for the state’s voters this year, according to a new poll released by the Utah Foundation.

Another top concern? That lawmakers are turning a deaf ear.

Housing affordability was the No. 1 issue Utahns want state policymakers to address, according to the think tank’s policy priority survey which they conduct every gubernatorial election cycle. But politicians not listening to voters came in a very close second.

These two issues, which were categorized as “most important” on the poll’s best-to-worst scale, were followed by the difficulty of earning enough to pay for non-housing needs and the obstacle of government overreach, which were both ranked as having “high importance.”

The nearly-80-year-old nonpartisan policy research center released the results of its quadrennial survey on Wednesday during its annual luncheon celebrating the 20th anniversary of their Utah Priorities Project.

Before Utah Foundation President Shawn Teigen revealed what the survey said about Utahns’ policy priorities, he asked Utah Gov. Spencer Cox; Steve Waldrip, the state’s senior adviser on housing attainability; Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed; and 2024 Utah teacher of the year Carly Maloney to give brief remarks on why the administration is prioritizing the issues of education, water and housing.

Cox expressed optimism about what he sees as the state’s biggest needs. He said recent funding for K-12 education over the last five years has been “unparalleled in the history of our state.” Cox said the same of money being directed toward water conservation, “I’ve never been more excited about where we’re headed with water in this state. I actually feel much more confident about our ability to save the Great Salt Lake.”

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On the topic of affordable housing and homelessness, Cox committed to end unsanctioned camping, provide better treatment options for homeless individuals and refuse to allow “what is happening in some of the most iconic cities in the country to happen here.”

Cox referenced the work of the state Legislature and Waldrip to develop creative tools to incentivize the construction of affordable housing. The governor also reiterated his goal for the state to see 35,000 starter homes built in the next five years.

“We’re going to move the needle,” Cox said.

Like Cox, Waldrip insisted there were policy solutions to Utah’s housing crisis. But he emphasized it would not be without sacrifice, including a significant shift in how Utahns think about the size of starter homes and the need for them to be built in neighborhoods across the state.

“We have to accept the fact that change is coming,” Waldrip said. “We have to accept the fact that our kids and our grandkids need housing. We have to accept the fact that in order to find that housing, we have to build more. And we can’t build more everywhere else, we have to build more where we are.”

If Utah lawmakers, community leaders and developers fail to increase the number of smaller, more affordable single-family detached housing, then an entire generation of Utahns could be cut off from the American dream, Waldrip said, because homeownership is the “No. 1 savings vehicle” for middle class families.

Waldrip referenced graphics showing that there was a steep decline in new residential construction in Utah following the COVID-19 pandemic, that median home prices are outpacing median income in Utah 6 to 1, and that Utah has one of the top 10 most expensive housing markets in the nation.

“It is, frankly, an existential crisis,” Waldrip said. “I could scare you with a lot of numbers. And hopefully this does a little bit because we need to be scared into action.”

Mirroring Utah voters as a whole, housing affordability was also rated as the top policy priority by audience members, who took the survey during the event held in Salt Lake City at the Grand America Hotel. Well over 200 business leaders and industry experts attended the lunch, including representatives from Intermountain Health, Clyde Companies, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and several universities in the state.

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But the other concerns shared most widely among those in attendance did not overlap with those chosen by most Utahns. The Utah Foundation had expected water conservation and education to appear in the top three or top five concerns of Utah voters, in addition to housing affordability, Teigen said. And for audience members, they did. Following housing, the survey’s participants at the event chose air quality, water and K-12 education as the most important policy priorities for the state.

But the survey found that for Utahns as a whole, water conservation and public schools came in sixth and seventh place, respectively. Other issues of “medium importance,” according to the poll, were political partisanship and air quality.

The survey found that Utahns rank state and local taxes and immigration as “important” issues. Homelessness, transportation and crime were ranked as “low importance” issues. And abortion, crowded neighborhoods, the Great Salt Lake and transgender rights ranked as “least important,” in terms of what issues should be prioritized by state lawmakers.

The Utah Foundation conducted the survey with Y2 analytics between Feb. 27 and March 17 among a sample size of 650 Utahns. Issue options were selected for the final survey after an initial survey was conducted with open-ended questions about which issues were most important for the state to address.

When asked why education appeared to be such a high priority for state leadership, but not for other Utahns, Maloney, who teaches psychology at Viewmont High School, said Utahns’ emphasis on politicians listening to their concerns would likely lead to elected officials improving education.

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Waldrip said Utahns may have heard so much about the issues of education and water, particularly the Great Salt Lake, in recent years that they think the problems have been largely taken care of. This might lead them to feel more concerned about other issues that impact them directly, like the inability of relatives to find their first home, Waldrip said.

Steed argued that water doesn’t usually strike people as a policy priority “until there’s a crisis.” But what Steed said most people don’t understand is that there is a pending water crisis, with the state’s population projected to explode in coming decades even as water supply plateaus and the Great Salt Lake continues to be in dire need of increased water inputs.

“We need to make sure that as we grow as a population that we’re not using more water,” Steed said. “It’s not draconian solutions necessarily, but indeed, just planning for the future.”