Ivory Homes
An artist rendering of the proposed Cottonwood Mall redevelopment plan. Most reactions to high-density housing are predictably negative. The not-in-my-backyard residents, or “NIMBYs,” see a future of traffic jams and higher crime, but something must change if creating affordable housing is a worthwhile goal.

New projections show Utah Valley will welcome approximately 1 million new residents in the next 50 years, a figure that sooner or later elicits the question, “Where will everyone live?” As development leaders plan for this sort of hypergrowth, it’s clear attitudes need to embrace approaches to housing outside the traditional single-family unit on a half-acre lot.

Most reactions to high-density housing are predictably negative. The not-in-my-backyard residents, or “NIMBYs,” see a future of traffic jams and higher crime, but something must change if creating affordable housing is a worthwhile goal.

Utah may look to California for some inspiration. In the San Francisco Bay Area, “NIMBYism” has spurred a counter movement called “YIMBY,” for “yes in my backyard.” An organization called YIMBY Action has mounted support for sympathetic political candidates as part of a wave of activism aimed at addressing soaring housing costs that have added to the area’s homeless problem.

The California movement is fueled by frustration over dramatically rising housing costs that have made it difficult for younger people, even those with above-average incomes, to afford a home within reasonable proximity to where they work. We are seeing a similar phenomenon along the Wasatch Front, as demand exceeds supply and home values and rental rates climb to levels not seen before. Utah now has more households than actual houses, and only a massive wave of new construction will reverse the ratio.

In two similar projects with contrasting results, voters in the San Francisco suburb of Brisbane voted this month to approve a massive high-density housing project, while in Utah, voters in Holladay put the kibosh on plans to bring some high-density housing to the site of the former Cottonwood Mall. The pro-development side in Brisbane was aided by activists affiliated with the YIMBY organization. In Holladay, there was no organized pro-development faction to canvass door-to-door or advertise on behalf of the project.

It seems inevitable that as the housing crunch persists or worsens, such organized activism will surface here. One of the aims of the YIMBY movement is to promote the long-term economic and social benefits of high-density growth. The organization holds meetings and distributes educational material debunking claims that high-density housing promotes unmanageable traffic congestion and higher crime. It also works to forge emotional appeal to established residents in areas where high-density projects are proposed, many of them baby boomers comfortably entrenched in single-family homes who see high-density developments as an existential threat to the character of their communities.

Studies show high preference levels among millennials for urban-style housing in walkable neighborhoods also well-served by public transit systems. The assortment of high-density developments sprinkled in downtown Salt Lake, in Sugar House and elsewhere, bear witness to that trending change in attitudes.

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Val Hale, the Valley Visioning co-chairman and executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, told the Deseret News, “If residents want their kids and grandkids to live and work in the Utah Valley … some high-density, affordable housing will need to be part of the solution. It's going to require a paradigm shift with people and some really thoughtful planning and fortitude on the part of our politicians.”

Time will tell how soon that paradigm shift comes, but it’s clear a combination of smart planning and sympathetic neighbors will be key to keeping housing costs affordable for the next generation.