Utah homebuilder offers cash prizes for new ways to increase affordable housing

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A view of Salt Lake City in June. Officials trying to solve Utah’s lack of affordable housing are casting a wide net for ideas, with the state’s largest homebuilder offering a total of $200,000 in prize money for the best housing innovations.

Utah’s largest homebuilder launched another national contest Wednesday seeking ideas for making housing more affordable, just as lawmakers are readying their latest strategies for tackling the problem.

Competition for the 2020 Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability got underway after its first iteration drew widespread interest. The contest offers $200,000 in prizes for the best innovations aimed at bringing more housing within reach of Utahns earning average incomes.

The prize’s chief backer, Ivory Homes CEO Clark Ivory, has called the lack of affordable housing across the country “one of the defining issues of our time.”

“It’s real to everyone who lives in this city, in this county and this state,” Ivory said Wednesday. “We’ve got to do something about it.”

Contestants have until Dec. 15 to submit their concepts for new home design and construction, financing, and public policy approaches. More information can be found at http://www.ivory-innovations.org

The University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business also will sponsor a 24-hour brainstorming challenge on housing called HackAHouse beginning Friday, with $5,000 in cash prizes.

Utah is part of a national housing crisis, as the share of new and existing homes sales affordable to a family earning the local median income has dropped from 75% in 2012 to just above 56% last year.

Officials say the state has an estimated gap of at least 43,500 affordable homes. Nearly one in eight households spends more than half its income on housing, studies suggest.

Last year, the Ivory Prize drew 126 applications from companies, nonprofits and other groups in 28 states. Several winners — including pioneers on new approaches to home financing and policies on accessory dwellings — are seeing their ideas used on a wider national stage.

Prizes in 2019 went to Factory OS, a San Francisco firm developing modular construction techniques for apartments; another San Francisco company called Landed, which helps school teachers with down payments; Home Partners of America, which offers lease-purchase programs to buyers facing challenges with their credit; and The Alley Flat Initiative, which successfully pushed a new zoning approach for so-called mother-in-law apartments in Austin, Texas.

Contest organizers chose the U.'s business school as their venue to launch this year’s call for applicants partly, they said, in recognition of major obstacles on housing faced by recent college graduates and other young adults.

“One of the key tenants of the American dream is owning a home and the path is not as clear, especially for our students who are graduating from the University of Utah,” said Courtney McBeth, special assistant to U. President Ruth Watkins.

The latest pitch for housing innovations comes as Utah legislators, city leaders, homebuilders, housing advocates and other officials are preparing a new slate of proposals before the state Legislature convenes again in January.

State Sen. Jake Anderegg, who is co-chairman of the state Commission on Housing Affordability, said Wednesday that new legislation is likely to include a significant request for state spending on housing, though he declined to offer a specific figure.

“My main goal this session is to justify the dollar amounts,” Anderegg said.

The Lehi Republican was the chief sponsor last year of SB34, calling for a $20 million contribution in 2020 to the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which provides low-interest lending to affordable residential construction. That one-time amount was to be followed by $4 million for the fund yearly.

The spending component was stripped from SB34 in the final days of the session, though other portions passed, including requirements that cities adopt strategies to increase construction of moderate-income housing — or face being denied state money for transportation projects.

Anderegg and other commission members said Wednesday they are debating the possibility of altering land-use powers given to Utah cities, in part to encourage the redevelopment of failing commercial centers into a mix of businesses and housing.

“That would maybe take the lid off of a few communities,” said Ivory Homes executive Chris Gamvroulas, who represents homebuilders on the commission.

Such a move could also meet resistance from cities wary of losing authority over planning and zoning within their boundaries.

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