As Utah’s housing crisis worsens, business leaders launch a campaign to change public sentiment

Amid widening evidence that Utah’s affordable housing crunch is worsening, business and community leaders met Thursday in Salt Lake City for the first of several “big tent” meetings to address the problem.

The Salt Lake Chamber is launching a major public-awareness campaign meant to highlight dramatically rising home prices, shrinking affordability and a historic gap in Utah between the number of households and available housing units. That deficit is now estimated at about 250,000 homes.

Derek Miller, chamber president and CEO, called the housing shortage “one of the greatest challenges we face.” Failing to address it, he said, threatens Utah’s quality of life and its record-breaking economic growth.

“People are getting squeezed out,” added Abby Osborne, the chamber’s vice president of public policy and government affairs.

In the first of a series of quarterly meetings, the chamber gathered nearly 200 elected officials, developers, bankers, professional planners, media specialists and housing advocates Thursday in hopes of getting their support for what has been dubbed the Housing Gap Coalition.

As part of the campaign, chamber officials plan a multipronged advertising and social-media blitz, and they aim to visit every city council in Utah to convey the urgency of the problem. They are also pushing for the adoption of more zoning ordinances that allow a mix of housing types, including options like apartments and condos, as well as a streamlining of cost-prohibitive permitting and impact fees levied at the local level.

On hand at the chamber’s downtown Salt Lake City offices Thursday was a stunning review of several decadeslong trends that have pushed Utah’s home prices to record levels and constrained supplies of existing homes, apartments and new construction.

Median home prices in Utah have soared in just a generation, swelling from $125,000 in 1991 to $347,000 today. Without action, several officials warned, housing prices in Utah’s urban centers will be comparable to those in San Francisco, where the median price is at $700,000 or above, in nine years.

Housing prices in Salt Lake County are roughly 20 percent higher than competing urban markets, such as Boise and Phoenix. Vacancy rates, meanwhile, are at historic lows across the Wasatch Front — even as apartments are being built in historic numbers — and, with wages not keeping up, one in every eight families is now spending half or more of its income on housing.

The latest numbers also show fair-market rents for apartments in Utah’s capital city moving further out of reach of blue-collar and many middle-class residents, with the average two-bedroom unit going for $1,035 per month. Paying that without having to sacrifice on other budget basics like food or health care requires earning $19.90 an hour, advocates say — nearly three times Utah’s minimum wage.

Statewide, the same apartment costs $925 a month, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“There needs to be a thoughtful dialogue and discussion on what these communities are going to look like, how they’re going to address and absorb some of the population growth that’s coming, in a responsible manner,” said Osborne. “But, really, turning our back on it is just not acceptable to us.”

Debates over housing and density in Utah have turned political in recent years, with a host of mayoral and city council races hinging on disputes over new development. That has ratcheted up further of late, with controversies over high-density projects such as Olympia Hills in southwest Salt Lake County and a redevelopment project at the former Cottonwood Mall site in Holladay.

Much of the problem centers on public perceptions of density in housing and development. Several elected officials highlighted suspicions among some of their residents that allowing apartments, town homes, condos and even single-family homes on smaller lots will damage their neighborhoods, boost crime, snarl traffic and burden public resources.

That sentiment, in turn, often brings intense pressure on city leaders from residents who oppose new housing options in their communities, said Cameron Diehl, executive director of Utah League of Cities and Towns.

Utah is expected to add another 2 million people by 2050 to the 3 million who live here already. Too few Utahns realize that most of that growth stems from the state’s higher-than-average birthrate, not outsiders flooding in, said Diehl. He mentioned the “cognitive dissonance” of some residents “who have six kids but don’t want anyone moving to their city.”

Diehl said the chamber’s media campaign will dovetail well with new efforts by the league to equip locally elected leaders with key tools and advice for crafting their zoning, land use and housing policies.

“We applaud this effort,” he said.

Robert Grow, CEO of the regional planning group Envision Utah, urged that the publicity campaign and other outreach efforts be nuanced, with different targeted messages to reach those with varying sentiments about growth.

Polling in 1991, Grow noted, found that about 85 percent of Utahns supported growth in the state, with 15 percent opposed. In 2016, 42 percent of residents surveyed backed more growth, with 37 percent opposed and the rest undecided.

“We are at a tipping point where if we aggressively frighten Utahns about what growth is doing to housing, we may shut down the housing,” Grow said. “We may see a lot of people slam the doors on growth.”

He and others urged advertising that emphasized offering solutions. “We’re Utahns,” Grow said. “We solve problems. ... Let’s ride that curve with really good messaging.”