Salt Lake Chamber pushes ahead with affordable housing blitz, but some cities are still hesitant

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Apartments under construction in Salt Lake City in November. The Salt Lake Chamber is urging city leaders across the state to commit to land-use planning and other steps to foster more construction of high-density housing.

Emissaries from the Salt Lake Chamber have spent months trying to build consensus across the state for affordable housing, even as opposition to new high-density residential projects continues to divide many Utah communities.

Folks from the business group have crisscrossed the state’s fastest-growing counties since July, chasing face-to-face meetings with members of up to 50 city councils to brief them on the numbers, trends and consequences behind a historic gap in available homes.

So far the delegation has gotten a mixed reception — evidence that Utah cities face their own challenges on housing.

One chamber official said a majority of elected leaders who have been contacted report their residents don’t understand the pressures that municipalities encounter when it comes to major zoning decisions and approving developments in their communities.

“Most cities are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Abby Osborne, the Salt Lake Chamber’s vice president of public policy and government relations. “They’re going through the processes and the due diligence and understand what the right decision is, but then they’re facing an angry constituency.”

Even though chamber officials are advocating a relatively mild agenda with the cities — asking them to commit to housing affordability and affirm the need for updated land-use planning — some cities have balked.

At least 17 cities have either declined thus far to meet with the chamber or have heard its presentation, then voted to reject a suggested policy resolution that pledges cities “to ensuring housing affordability for all Utah residents.”

Ten cities in Box Elder, Cache, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah, Weber and Washington counties have approved the policy resolution, and 19 are scheduled to take it up in the coming weeks.

The policy statement “has no teeth to it,” Osborne acknowledged. “It’s just saying, ‘We’re all part of the problem and we’re all part of the solution.”

She said chamber officials hope to carry their data and message to leaders from 87 municipalities in those eight counties by mid-2019.

The Salt Lake Chamber effort was launched over the summer in response to what many housing advocates, business leaders and elected officials are now calling a crisis, caused by a historic gap in Utah between the supply of affordable homes and families forming new households.

Representing nearly 63,000 Utah employers in all 29 counties, the chamber is readying an advertising and social media campaign for launch early next year. The blitz is aimed at swaying public sentiment on the need to lower barriers for higher-density development.

The campaign is driven in part by an influential study on the state’s housing gap in March by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City. That report, sought by the chamber, identified a growing shortage of at least 50,000 housing units statewide and a resulting surge in home prices and rental rates.

The price escalation — made worse by rising construction costs — threatens to push most new housing out of reach for an increasing number of Utahns making average wages, the study found. Against a backdrop of rising population fueled by Utah’s high birthrate as well as in-migration, the housing gap could slow economic growth, chamber officials warn.

Taking that case to Utah’s cities, the chamber delegation is giving an hourlong spiel to city leaders that includes data on anticipated growth in individual communities as the Beehive State climbs from a population of about 3 million residents now to roughly 5 million by 2050.

Osborne views education as the main goal of the meetings. “We want to have them armed and ready with the data," she said, “so they can make informed decisions.”

The chamber is also urging cities to update their zoning master plans and state-required goals on moderate-income housing to better align those strategies with the latest population estimates and state spending priorities on key roads and mass transit.

Eight cities — Bountiful, Centerville, Woods Cross, Holladay, Riverton, West Valley City, Grantsville and Springville — have discussed and turned down the chamber’s resolution, at least for now, according to one recent tally. Officials in Huntsville, West Haven, Clearfield, Bluffdale, Alpine, American Fork, Saratoga Springs, St. George and Washington have either turned away requests for a meeting or have yet to respond.

Their reasons appear to vary widely.

Many city officials have cited issues with scheduling. Clearfield begged off, basically telling the Salt Lake Chamber, “We’re doing our part." Leaders in American Fork referred inquiries to that city’s own chamber of commerce.

Officials in several other cities said they are already in the midst of updating their master plans and other key zoning documents, making adoption of the resolution premature.

Woods Cross Mayor Rick Earnshaw said officials there generally agree with the chamber’s policy statement but did not feel comfortable approving it while the city has yet to identify where high-density housing might go.

“It just wasn’t good timing,” Earnshaw said.

In Holladay, where resident recently voted down a $560 million mixed-use development project at the old Cottonwood Mall site, Mayor Rob Dahle said city leaders also agree with the chamber’s resolution in principle but declined to officially pass it.

“We just didn’t want to sign anything as a symbolic gesture," Dahle said, “and then not be able to meet the requirements.”

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs noted that his city had declined to pass the policy statement because “we thought it was kind of unnecessary” in light of the suburban city’s own recent steps with regard to development, including coordination with leaders from nearby communities.

"We felt like, as a city, we’ve been doing quite a bit to address growth and to do it in a way that is responsible and the way our citizens want to see," Staggs said.

An official with Utah League of Cities and Towns, while applauding the chamber’s efforts at outreach, played down the mixed responses from cities.

The league, representing elected officials and civil servants with 243 Utah municipalities, approved its own detailed policy statement on housing in September, said Executive Director Cameron Diehl. The group is also finalizing a “tool kit” of various policy strategies to help cities address the issue, Diehl said.

City leaders, he said, have limited control over how housing development occurs in their communities and must cater to the needs of existing residents and prospective newcomers.

“Cities plan for housing. Cities don’t build housing,” said Diehl. Master plans on land use, transportation and moderate-income housing are already required of all municipalities under state law, he noted. But, given the diversity of Utah’s cities and towns, he said, “one size misfits all.”

“If you’re St. George, your housing needs in your general plan are going to be different than if you’re Santaquin or Logan or if you’re Ogden,” Diehl said. “We’re advocating for cities to make sure there’s flexibility for them to use tools that make sense in their community to plan for today’s and tomorrow’s needs.”