If you’re looking for a place to live in Utah right now, you’re well aware that home prices and prevailing rents are high and climbing skyward.
With Utah’s housing shortage now reaching crisis worsened by the pandemic, researchers at the University of Utah have published a new guide to help cities encourage more homebuilding at more accessible prices — including some ideas not always popular with existing residents.
Heading the list of “best practices” from the U.’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute is the sometimes controversial practice of rezoning land within municipal borders to allow for new kinds of higher-density development.
The study, also sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber, says that most other effective strategies to improve access to affordable housing flow from adding density in land-use policy, and without it, the institute’s economic analysts say, there is “little chance” Utah’s cities and towns will get ahead of the problem.
“Progress on the housing crisis needs continued state and civic leadership,” the study adds. “Without it, today’s children, Utah’s next generation, will face an even greater scarcity of affordable housing and more burdensome housing prices.”
Here’s a look some of its recommendations:
In a nutshell, this means changing city rules on how land can be used for home construction to allow for more apartments, town homes, condominiums and other forms of housing that are typically built closer together.
After decades of focusing on single-family homes on larger lots, zoning rules in Utah aren’t keeping up with new needs and preferences of today’s would-be homebuyers, the study says. Rising demand coupled with shifting tastes among younger residents, escalating construction costs and falling supplies of developable land all require this shift toward denser types of multifamily housing.
These policies, the study says, can boost housing supplies, offset rising home prices, lower other living costs and help reduce concentrations of disadvantaged residents in neighborhoods with fewer opportunities.
But, in a nod to the controversy that higher-density projects sometimes spur, the study says these conversations must be shaped by each community’s politics, history of development and economic and social conditions.
Against the backdrop of Utah’s rapid population growth, many city officials say the debate over density can’t be avoided — even though it often stirs resistance from existing residents who may want to keep their neighborhoods more as they are.
“We can’t pretend that isn’t happening,” says South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey. “So we need to figure out what we can do.”
At the same time, city leaders mulling additional density for housing have to square that with their community values and also keep the desires of voters in mind.
“Municipal leaders from across the Wasatch Front are all dealing with growth and ways of balancing the needs of today’s residents and tomorrow’s residents,” says Cameron Diehl with the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
The association’s own surveys, Diehl says, show growth and its impacts remain a top concern among Utahns who consider their quality of life to be at stake, but young families across the state also need housing — so cities are responding.
A spokesman for the state’s top homebuilder agrees some cities are leading out on the zoning front in hopes of addressing the housing crisis.
The question, according to Michael Parker, vice president of public affairs and senior economist with Ivory Homes, “is which cities will look at this menu and not just order something, but implement, partner and execute.”
Building near transit
Over Utah’s decades of building subdivisions of single-family homes, land policies also largely focused on automobile travel and development that induced sprawl.
Today, due in part to worries over air quality and a host of new state laws, Utah cities are now actively shaping their land policies around major mass transit and rapid bus lines, part of a push toward more of transit-oriented development.
The U. study highlights this approach as a key way to boost housing stocks, especially with large acreages available within a half-mile of Utah Transit Authority’s light rail stations. TODs help meet housing demand by creating more compact projects near transit hubs that mix residential and commercial uses, letting residents be less dependent on cars, making communities more walkable and boosting access to jobs, education and other opportunities.
The approach also helps revitalize older communities, lowers commuting costs and makes better use of existing cities’ road networks, the study says.
Yet not all parts of Utah have access to rail and rapid bus lines, and some residents have criticized housing developments for overestimating how much transit will relieve existing traffic and parking concerns.
The U. study touts American Fork and Farmington, in particular, for significant successes in building major developments around their FrontRunner stops, with housing for residents in a variety of economic and social circumstances. South Salt Lake has seen similar advances, it says, with new zoning along TRAX lines, the S-Line streetcar routes and in its city center.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell says his city has encouraged nearly 1,000 new housing units in and around its downtown area, much of it by zoning for multifamily housing along transit corridors.
“They have access to services,” the mayor says of residents. “They can get everything they need.”
Despite recently plummeting mass transit ridership during the pandemic, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini says that as cities continue to face longer-term issues of air quality, congestion and parking, “we’re planning on a future with transit as a necessary and viable option.”
Experts call these “accessory-dwelling units,” or ADUs, and they come in all shapes and sizes — from basement units to above-garage apartments and full-blown additions attached to existing homes.
ADUs are a hot topic now in Utah’s housing markets and an estimated 58 of Utah’s largest 94 cities currently allow them in some form. According to the U. study, these units tend to be more affordable, bring housing to market quickly, provide added income, appeal to different types of residents, and tend to fit better into existing neighborhoods.
But building ADUs “is still somewhat of a challenge” in most cities, the study says, and officials often struggle to match new zoning to permit them with their existing residential land use. Salt Lake City weighed neighborhood pushback for nine years before it loosened its rules on ADUs in 2018.
Existing regulations on these dwellings — governing issues such as lot sizes and on-street parking requirements — can vary widely from city to city and even within cities, the study says. Many homeowners are unaware that building these units is even an option.
ADUs also can be expensive and traditional home financing isn’t always available, which means residents often pay for them out of personal savings.
There is also controversy among Utah cities over using ADUs for added income through short-term rentals on sites such as Airbnb. Some 65% of the cities that permit these add-on homes also require that an owner live in either the main residence or the accessory dwelling.