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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE—A worker places roofing sheathing as he and other workers build a housing project in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday, May 23, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is facing a potential housing crisis with more individuals and families looking for a place to live than is available statewide.

The Salt Lake Chamber reported Thursday that for the first time in 40 years the Beehive State has more households than available housing units. The result is increasing prices for homeownership and rents, coupled with decreasing overall housing affordability.

The data was presented at the first meeting of the recently formed Housing GAP Coalition, which was created in response to a new study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute that showed the rate at which Utah housing prices are increasing could threaten the state's cost of living, economic prosperity and overall quality of life.

"We've got to get ahead of this problem," Abby Osborne, Salt Lake Chamber vice president of government affairs, said. "We've got to come together as the private sector and advocates to start to address this issue."

The business-led group is among the first of its kind nationwide to target the growing affordable housing crisis before it’s too late, Osborne said.

She said the group will focus on identifying the challenges associated with housing affordability and work to see that "the American Dream" of homeownership is kept alive for all Utahns and that a variety of housing types are accessible to people of any income level.

She said raising public awareness about the matter of housing affordability is one of the top priorities initially so that people are educated about the various issues surrounding affordability, such as the shortage of housing units, construction and labor costs, land costs and local topography, community zoning ordinances, along with economic and demographic growth.

"Our population growth is our problem. We're doing this to ourselves," she said. "Eighty percent of our population growth is because we're having children. The other 20 percent is people coming into Utah."

Osborne said the population growth has to be addressed in a sustainable manner that will mitigate the long-term effects of continued increases in households.

"We've got to do it in a smart fashion that aligns with transportation, aligns with infrastructure (and) aligns workplace and job centers to housing," she said.

In addressing the coalition of local business and civic leaders at the Salt Lake Chamber offices downtown, she noted that Utah ranked No. 4 nationally for housing price increases since 1991, behind only Colorado, Oregon and Montana. During that period, home prices in the Beehive State have climbed 276.1 percent — well above the U.S. average of 148.7 percent.

The affordability issue has prompted an exodus from some of the West's more popular metro areas, she noted, which could happen to Utah if something isn't done to address this critical concern.

"Without proper planning and controlled growth, we know the markets that we will turn into," Osborne said. "We'll turn into areas that people are fleeing from, the Seattles, the Bay Areas, the Portlands (Oregon) that people are coming to Utah to leave."

She said collaboration among the various public and private stakeholders is likely the only way the problem gets solved in a sustainable fashion.

Regarding the issue of affordable housing for lower- and moderate-wage households, the coalition will have to consider ways to include solutions for that problem as well, which may involve some housing density options, she added.

"We need to make sure that density is a concept that we talk about in the broader context about population growth and make sure that we sustain our quality of life and grow in a smart way," she said.

Meanwhile, Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said figuring out the proper balance of housing affordability solutions that will maintain a suitable quality of life for all Utahns will be key in any planning the coalition undertakes.

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"Housing affordability is the big picture conversation about overall housing prices increasing, making it harder for people to afford a variety of housing options," he said. "It's a public policy question, it's a market question, it's public perception question — it's all of the above."

He said going forward the coalition will have to pay particular attention to the public reaction that may include sentiments such as "not in my backyard."

"The general public has legitimate concerns about the impacts of population growth," Diehl said. "One of those concerns needs to be the question of affordability. Helping them understand the (various) pieces of the issue and how that fits into their values as Utahns is really why this coalition exists."