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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
For the first time in 40 years, the increase in households in Utah exceeds the number of new housing units, according to a recent study by James Wood of the University of Utah and a director for the Salt Lake Home Builders Association. Framers from Dave Miller Construction raise a wall on a house as they work on houses in the South Jordan area on Thursday, March 16, 2017.

WEST JORDAN — A rare combination of circumstances could be poised to push Utah's teetering housing shortage over the brink of concern and into the realm of crisis, according to a group of home builders, real estate professionals and municipal leaders.

For 40 years, from 1970-2010, there were more houses than the demand for housing. There was an average cushion of about 11 percent between Utah's housing supply and residents' housing needs, according to a 2016 analysis by James Wood, the Ivory-Boyer senior fellow at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

But since that time, housing inventory has fallen well behind the state's increasing needs, and now tens of thousands of Utahns are searching for homes, condos or townhouses that simply don't exist — and may not be built anytime soon.

Utah housing supply and demand | Mary Archbold

Jaren Davis, executive officer of the Salt Lake Home Builders Association, said these "unhoused" residents are dispersed throughout Utah communities.

"What we're seeing now is couples and families doubling-up with friends or their families while house hunting," said Davis. "They're kind of invisible, but when you start asking around, you find out everyone knows somebody in this situation."

And that situation appears to be heading for worse before it gets better.

"We're getting hit with factors that, combined, have put us in very precarious housing situation that's going to take some time to get out of," said Davis. "Land, labor and regulations are our biggest hurdles."

Comments from the mayors of Riverton, Midvale, Sandy and Draper who gathered for a panel discussion about the issue Thursday reflected similar concerns and highlighted some of the obstacles they are navigating at the municipal level.

"We have a tsunami coming," said Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini, "if we don't start setting down the guidelines now."

Those guidelines, Seghini said, need to address zoning and land use regulations in a manner that allows for more density and more flexibility to help address unmet housing demands. What sometimes hinders cities from implementing those changes, she said, is lack of widespread public involvement.

"Public clamor can't drive all the decisions we make," Seghini said. "Just because 10 people didn't like it doesn't mean it's not good for the city."

She added, "There are a lot of people that aren't speaking up."

Draper Mayor Troy Walker said in his community there are some examples of developer-friendly zoning changes that have only languished.

"We rezoned parcels near FrontRunner stations for unlimited height," Walker said. "Someone could build a high-rise there today, but nobody's done it."

Riverton Mayor Bill Applegarth said he dreamed of a time when a master plan could also be a zoning plan for his city.

"You work with the City Council and residents and you decide not just the master plan, but the zoning plan," Applegarth said. "Then, when a developer comes in, he knows what to work with and it doesn't lead to a wasted investment."

While particular challenges vary by community, the assembled mayors agreed that higher density projects were a critical part of the housing solution because available, developable parcels are disappearing along the Wasatch Front.

Envision Utah's Chief Operating Officer Ari Bruening presented statistics showing that the state's residential property parcels are getting smaller over time, but so is the remaining space to build.

Salt Lake County has about 40,000 acres of developable land right now. Davis County, 20,000; Weber County, 40,000; and Utah County has 240,000, but a large portion of that land is isolated from current transportation and transit corridors.

As for the dearth of construction labor, Davis said every builder he knows is looking for skilled help, and it simply isn't available.

"Builders are working at capacity right now," Davis said. "There's a cascading impact happening and we're simply falling behind — way behind the need that's out there."

Mayors and industry representatives concluded the discussion by agreeing to continue working together to find and implement strategies to bring housing supplies nearer to the levels of current needs.