Utah needs to build a variety of new housing options.
Prices are skyrocketing in the state. According to a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, single-family home prices were up 8.1 percent last year, with no end in sight to the increases, and apartment rents were increasing at similar rates. Why? Quite simply, we’re not building enough housing in Utah. For the first time in memory, we added more households than housing units.
If you’re a homeowner or a real estate agent, you might think rising prices are a good thing. Think again. Housing price increases are significantly outpacing wage growth. Your house may increase in value, but will your children be able to afford a home? How about the teachers, police officers and firefighters in your community? If that’s not enough to create concern, there’s the impact on our economy. Think of all the companies that have fled California due to high costs. They won’t be coming here.
California’s housing market can shed some light on our own. Faced with rapid growth, many California communities, and even the state, imposed regulations that were ever more stringent, designed to curb development and therefore put the brakes on growth. What Californians failed to recognize is that development doesn’t cause growth; growth drives development.
So what does cause growth? Basically just two things: biology and the economy. In Utah, biology is a big factor. In fact, around 70 percent of our growth over time has been our own children and grandchildren. But the economy also plays a big role. Without a strong economy — read: jobs — our children would have to move elsewhere. And, significantly, jobs attract in-migration, which accounts for the other 30 percent of growth. So the only real way to slow or stop our growth is to kill our economy. That certainly slowed growth in Detroit, but it’s probably not what most of us here in Utah want.
California’s constraints didn’t stop growth, so demand for housing stayed high. Instead, those regulations diminished the supply, and we know what happens next. On the Wasatch Front, we already have geographic constraints on development. Salt Lake County only has around 40,000 acres left to build on, and Davis County has even fewer. If we try to stop growth in our communities by throwing regulatory constraints on top of that, we’ll continue to see housing shortages and skyrocketing housing prices. We’ll also see lower-income people who start to double up in their homes; who have to move far from work, which means they have to drive far, creating congestion and air pollution, and who live in ghettos, which makes it harder for their children to escape poverty. That’s not the kind of place most of us want to leave for the next generation.
What’s the solution? Quite simply, we need to build the housing supply to meet the housing demand. Putting housing in already developed communities close to jobs means people don’t have to drive long distances, which jams our roads, fouls our air and requires expensive new highways. Townhomes, duplexes, apartments or condos can also provide realistically priced housing options for younger families or lower-income families (often our own children and grandchildren) in communities where they otherwise may not be able to live.
Support your local planning commission and city council in granting swift approval to projects that promote a full mix of housing types in your community, especially those that are well designed and located — such as those that make it possible for more people to walk, bike or drive short distances to work, parks, schools or shopping. Planning for a variety of housing options is the responsible way for cities to accommodate growth, and it doesn’t have to mean onerous regulations. In fact, it can mean getting regulations out of the way to let the market demand for more housing drive the supply.
In California, it takes years, sometimes even decades, to get a housing project approved. Let’s not go there. After all, that apartment complex that you worry might ruin the neighborhood might just be the place your children move after they finish school.
Robert Grow is president and CEO of Envision Utah.