A business group is running TV ads on Utah’s housing gap, but opponents call them ‘propaganda’ pushing high-density housing

As dad settles at the head of the dinner table, mom smiles and brings in plates of food. A grandchild squeals happily — via video conference. The teenager is on speaker phone. Bobby is trying to text the family “big news” of a new baby on the way.

The grownup kids have all moved away, it seems from the commercial running in Utah media markets, and family dinners only happen remotely now, an electronic device next to each place setting.

Mom isn’t smiling anymore.

“The Utah housing gap is causing families to live further apart,” a narrator says over the scene in a Salt Lake Chamber-backed advertising campaign highlighting a lack of affordable housing in the state. “Join the conversation and be part of the solution.”

The commercial is part of a $350,000 campaign on TV, radio, social media platforms and mobile devices whose creators say is designed to reframe the way Utahns think about growth. Opponents of the effort are referring to it instead as “propaganda” backed by developers.

The chamber’s 10-, 15- and 30-second ads — set to run through March — conclude by referring viewers and listeners to UtahHousingGap.com, a chamber-maintained site highlighting a gap between available Utah homes and new families seeking housing.

The ads strike a theme likely to resonate with many Utahns, given the state’s focus on family bonds through the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mentions of the same dynamic — young adults forced to move away because they can’t afford nearby homes — have surfaced repeatedly in other forums, including Capitol Hill, as lawmakers debate housing legislation.

With Utah’s population continuing to climb toward a projected 5.4 million people by 2050, some residents feel their communities are “changing too quickly and the growing pains seem increasingly acute,” said Abby Osborne, vice president of public policy and government relations for the chamber, who helped develop the campaign.

“Raising awareness to these issues will equip residents with the facts and tools they need to understand the implications of not planning for our population growth,” Osborne said via email. The ads, she said, “will make Utah a better place by ensuring Utahns can effectively engage within their cities and neighborhoods in a way that encourages smart growth.”

In urban planning circles, “smart growth" refers to an approach to development centered on planning, a mix of building types and close coordination between housing and transportation.

But a group called Utah for Responsible Growth is decrying the ad blitz as part of what it calls “a propaganda war” focused on Utah’s housing market. Developers, the group claims, have enlisted advertising help as they seek “to brainwash Utahns into accepting more unbalanced growth and higher density housing than our communities can handle.”

The grass-roots group contends that Utah’s elected leaders, urban planning organizations, real-estate developers and homebuilders are pushing an agenda for addressing a lack of affordable housing with “more poorly planned high-density housing projects.”

“Your quality of life will be negatively impacted while developers sit back and pad their pockets,” Utahns for Responsible Growth says in a well-produced ad of its own, posted on YouTube.

The group’s video, produced in white board animation without a big budget, warns of the effects from development on quality of life and increased traffic congestion. And without mentioning it by name, the ad also refers to Olympia Hills, a high-density project approved last summer west of Herriman, only to be vetoed by then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams after an outcry from residents.

“Utah communities aren’t out of the woods yet,” the ad says, “because developers have teamed up to sell you on the necessity of unbalanced growth so they will have less opposition to high-density housing.”

This fight comes amid a series of clashes over high-density housing throughout Utah’s major population centers. Beyond Olympia Hills, the residents of Holladay rejected a plan to allow for a major development at the Cottonwood Mall site driven by complaints of its size and density.

Justin Swain, a member of Utah for Responsible Growth, said the group’s own advertising was initially created in reaction to the chamber’s campaign and word that some developers were pooling their resources “to push this narrative and try to quiet the voices of the citizens.”

And while the group is not opposed to all development, Swain said, members have struggled at times to have their concerns heeded by municipal leaders. He questioned why the Salt Lake Chamber needed to shift public opinion on the issue if its efforts are evidence-based.

“Why are they spending money to try and persuade residents of the area that their way is the way to go?" he asked. "These should be unbiased decisions made based on expert knowledge and data.”

But Swain added that since the group’s initial ad, members have "tried to reduce that defensiveness a little bit and say, ‘Look, we want to accomplish the same things. We want everybody to be able to afford a home of varying income levels. We want this to be a great place to live.’ "

Osborne said its ad campaign was approved by the chamber’s board and has been funded by member businesses and a national grant — and is not being driven by developer interests.

She said the ads are based on research on Utah’s housing shortage, including a study released in May by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City, as well as major worries among employers that if left unaddressed, the issue of housing affordability could become “our state’s greatest economic threat."

The ad campaign, she said, has no agenda on directing housing growth to specific Utah communities, but instead hopes to enlist “all cities collectively to try to make a difference here and plan accordingly.”

“What we would like to see more of," said Osborne, “is more people coming together to figure out how to accommodate growth while preserving what we love about our communities.”