Grabbing a piece of the American dream in Provo can't be this hard, can it? Listen:

"My son moved to California because of what he would have to spend for a house in our neighborhood," Steve Thompson, 610 E. Center St., told the City Council in a recent meeting.So it has come to that. The housing market is so tight in the heart of Utah Valley that people are moving to the Golden State, of all places, to find an affordable place to live.

What's next? Californians grumbling about all the Utahns moving in?

City leaders are in a quandary. They know more people - not fewer, despite the occasional wanderer - want to live in their fair city. But they don't know how to accommodate them. Traditional houses? Town houses? Condominiums? Apartments? One-way bus tickets?

"We can't oppose growth. There's going to be growth. We have got to manage that growth so we don't lose quality," said Mayor Lewis Billings.

Councilwoman Cindy Richards said the city must be intro-spec-tive. "What are we doing that invites what we don't need and discourages what we do need?" she mused at a council retreat, adding Provo needs to turn that around.

Some City Council members want the newcomers and the local up-and-comers to buy three-bedroom ramblers complete with two-car garages, fenced yards and sprinkler systems. The reality is most struggling young families can't come up with the money to get into an average home, the price of which hovers at $140,000.

It takes an annual household income of at least $50,000 to be able to make monthly payments on a median-priced home with a 30-year, fixed rate conventional mortgage.

"Frankly, nobody is building affordable housing," said Richard Secrist, Provo community development director. "We keep building these starter castles that nobody can afford."

Single-family home sales declined the past year in Utah Valley, while condo sales soared, according to the Utah County Association of Realtors. Lower prices made condos easier for people to get into, although they weren't buyers' first choice for housing, said Kevin Call, executive director.

Incomes in Provo are lagging behind home prices. "There's a huge gap," said Doug Carlson, Provo Housing Authority executive director. "How are people dealing with that?"

Darin and Julie Stephens, a 20-something couple with an infant daughter, are browsing for a home in Provo. Although they're six months to a year away from buying their first home, the couple is already somewhat discouraged.

"We just figure we're going to have a buy a condo to find something we can afford. We were kind of disappointed in that respect," said Julie Stephens, a full-time bookkeeper who has a history degree from Brigham Young University. Her husband has a degree in civil engineering and is earning a master's degree at BYU while working part time.

The Stephenses know they could migrate to southern Utah County for a house in their price range, but they'd rather stay in Provo. "We don't want to move to Spanish Fork or Payson," said Julie Stephens. "Our life is here."

The Stephens family currently rents, as do at least 65 percent of Provo residents. And as many as 2,000 more renters are expected in the city as BYU increases its enrollment cap over the next four years.

The city is under tremendous community pressure to stop the proliferation of apartment complexes. Several council members were elected on slow-growth platforms.

Council Chairman Greg Hudnall initially wanted to see only single-family, owner-occupied houses built in the city, although he has changed his opinion after remembering that he and his wife had rented for six years before buying a house.

Provo issued permits for 201 multifamily units last year compared to a whopping 1,136 the year before. Single-family home permits dropped to 297 last year from 443 the previous year. The city averages about 700 residential permits annually.

Currently, 1,065 residential units or building lots have some form of city approval. Another 555 units, including the controversial 340-unit Seven Peaks project, are on the drawing board.

"People, I think, see density as a bad thing," Secrist said.

Some residents who helped develop Provo's new general plan wondered why Provo couldn't be more like Springville or Mapleton where homeownership reaches 90 percent.

Councilman David Rail said that's impossible. He admonished his colleagues at a recent meeting to remember that Provo is a college town and that it needs to provide housing for students.

A Texas A&M University study of housing in 27 university towns such as Tempe, Ariz., and College Station, Texas, found an average of 55 percent renter-occupied housing. At 60 percent, according to the study, Provo wasn't too far out of line.

Rail said the city needs a good mix of rentals and owner-occupied homes.