More people are moving to Utah just as many millennials are taking a new look at homebuying instead of renting.

To offer enough affordable homes and keep the state’s economy on the mend in the COVID-19 era, cities and developers may need to do something radical. They may need to go back in time.

At least, back to when homebuilders focused more on single-family houses with bigger lots, an approach to growth that many planners now view as “sprawl” and that rapidly expanded the Wasatch Front metropolitan area.

Top researchers at a Houston think tank brought that vision to Utah leaders this week, arguing the state should put aside its “smart growth” strategies of higher-density homes around business centers in favor of what they call “smart sprawl."

They point to the rising exodus from places like San Francisco and New York, with people fleeing closely built apartments and condominiums for Utah’s more open spaces and lower cost of living.

“If we’re going to see future lockdowns, which is not beyond the pale, what you’ll find is that you’re a lot better off in a house with a backyard than you are in a one-bedroom apartment,” said Joel Kotkin, an author and presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Southern California.

Kotkin and Wendell Cox, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Urban Reform Institute, pitched a future scenario in sharp contrast to Utah’s current trajectory, which has led to an urban boom in recent years of apartments and town home construction near mass transit.

Why Utah might reconsider sprawl

Utah has a sizzling housing market overall, with sales of existing single-family homes and condos beating earlier signs of a pandemic slump. Nearly 31,822 homes changed hands across the five-county metropolitan area between January and September, up 4% over sales for those same months in 2019.

Fueling the trend, according to the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, are “many out-of-state buyers,” low interest rates and a new thirst for suburban life.

But Utah’s ongoing shortage of more affordable homes — a problem it had well before COVID-19 arrived — is complicating that picture.

“Housing affordability is a big problem,” Cox said. “You’re at a point where you could well get strong migration from elsewhere in the country, but that could come to a close pretty quickly if this housing affordability continues to deteriorate.”

Cox and Kotkin are studying what they say are long-standing population shifts away from big urban areas to midsize cities, suburbs and rural areas that are gaining steam because of concerns over the coronavirus and civil unrest.

There are also new signs, they said, that businesses are relocating with similar motives.

The researchers argue that many are seeking alternatives to tightly packed living quarters in larger cities. These people are in search of places where homes are more spread out as well as less expensive — particularly price-conscious millennials who are now in their 30s and want to buy.

The movement has accelerated, too, during the pandemic-related shift to working remotely.

In light of these trends, Cox and Kotkin urged decision-makers in Utah’s urban counties to not equate “smart growth” with dense growth and instead tilt back toward single-family homes and commuting by car.

Their suggestion comes as the Wasatch Front has seen a historic move in the past 20 years toward construction of fewer single-family homes and more multifamily residences such as apartments, town homes and other kinds of attached housing.

Kotkin and Cox say that approach to growth and land planning can often be too restrictive on residents, sometimes thwarting their ability to succeed economically.

"Smart sprawl,” they say, puts more of a family-oriented emphasis on detached housing, clustering open spaces around residential villages while also calling for a greater role for cars in land planning, emphasizing shorter commutes over trips by bus or light rail.

“You basically solve the sprawl problem within the sprawl,” said Kotkin, also executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. “You don’t make people miserable so that you can have a planner’s model that really limits people’s choices.”

The results, the researchers argue, promote greater income equality and strengthen family units. They also believe the perceived benefits of mass transit are overblown.

“Mass transit really does not work very well in most places,” Kotkin said in a presentation for the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City. “Frankly, we’d be better off building day care centers than spending a fortune to build these light rail systems.”

Utah’s commitment to smart growth

Longtime urban planners more familiar with Utah’s quirks push back on Kotkin and Cox, noting that the metro area’s slim supplies of developable land and dire air quality problems continue to make housing density and building houses, apartments and other types of residences more closely together an essential strategy.

“There is a misconception that regulation and government drive high-density housing,” said Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, a planning agency. It’s more about market forces, he said.

“High density in Utah happens when communities allow it to happen,” said Knowlton. “They reduce regulation on high density and then the developer wants to build it based on an assessment that there is a demand for it.”

It’s true that most Utahns — even younger adults and first-time buyers — would prefer single-family homes if they could afford it, according to Knowlton, but there are dwindling acreages between Ogden and Provo on which to build houses.

“There’s actually not really a lot of room near where people work to make that happen,” he said — that is, without reusing land in urban areas and encouraging high-density housing near public transit. The notion of smart growth, Knowlton said, “is that you allow density, workforce housing, apartments and town houses where the market most wants them to occur and where the benefits ripple the most.”

More to the point, another top planner said, the dichotomy between city and suburb “is breaking down” in Utah and choosing a single-family home no longer means you can’t also live in a vibrant, walkable neighborhood.

“We’re now seeing density and mixed uses in the suburbs,” said Ari Bruening, CEO of Envision Utah, who pointed to Daybreak, the master-planned community in South Jordan. Millennials, he said, “still want things nearby. They still want to be able to walk.”

Data suggests that more of Utah’s population growth is gravitating toward less-dense areas outside of its main population centers, Bruening noted, “but that’s not true because people don’t want to live in Salt Lake County. It’s because Salt Lake County is getting full and expensive.”

The advent of cleaner automotive fuels is likely to improve air quality on the Wasatch Front in coming years, but its bowl-like geography remains prone to piling up smog in health-threatening winter inversions. And that makes mass transit ridership and other steps aimed at reducing tailpipes more crucial here than other urban areas, Bruening said.

Public surveys, he said, also have repeatedly shown Utahns “want it to be convenient to drive, but also convenient to walk, or bike or take a train.”

The future

In recent months, Utah has had the largest drops in available housing inventory among 50 top U.S. cities, spurred in part by coastal residents moving in and city dwellers already here moving to the suburbs, according to Zillow.

At the same time, new apartments and other housing units are going up by the thousands from Salt Lake City to Herriman and across adjoining counties. With demand rising, that isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.

Along with upending other aspects of life, the coronavirus is leading to new discussions on the pros and cons of density, who is moving here and what they want out of the place they live.

Whether that will prompt a new take on the single-family home, though, remains an open question.