Looking for an apartment? Here’s how northern Utah’s rental market is shaping up for 2021.

Despite a building boom, demand still exceeds supply, and that isn’t good news for bargain hunters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Liberty Sky, a luxury apartment tower going up at 151 S. State. Although apartments are being built at a record pace, experts say the added housing supply will take years before it starts bringing down rents.

It’s a difficult time for Utah renters.

Rents along the Wasatch Front remain relatively high, at least compared to prevailing incomes, and they keep rising. Those hunting for a place are finding little available.

Even before COVID-19, thousands already were doubled up with roommates or living with family while they searched for a rental they can afford, without taking on a burdensome commute.

In 2020, the third of Utahns who rent felt a further pinch as the virus disrupted the jobs of many and left them straining to keep up.

So, here are answers to questions facing renters — or those scouting for an apartment or home to lease — in 2021:

Why is everything so expensive?

Utah’s housing market has been out of balance in many ways for at least nine years, with overall home construction lagging behind unrelenting demand, for rentals and homes for sale.

In the case of apartments, single-family housing and other home types that make up the state’s 300,000 or so rentals, that housing gap has pushed down vacancy rates by historic standards. In turn, that has led landlords to steadily boost rents by an average of 5% to 7% a year without much worry their units will sit empty.

Years of those hikes have added up. Between that trend and a similar escalation in home prices, experts say Utah is in a crisis.

There is some good news, in a way: Market watchers expect those annual rent increases to slow to about 3% from the impact of nearly a year of COVID-19 disruptions and landlords being less aggressive on leasing.

According to a January 2021 report by the popular apartment rental website Zumper, rents on a one-bedroom apartment have dipped or stayed flat month over month in Salt Lake City, Provo, Orem, Ogden and Sandy after years of increases.

Average monthly rents ranged from $780 in Ogden to $1,340 in Sandy, the website said, and state’s median rent was $988. Utah’s capital ranks 61st most expensive among the top 100 U.S. cities for rental rates.

But, assuming U.S. vaccination rates climb as 2021 unfolds and the pandemic eases, rents along the Wasatch Front probably will return to that steeper incline.

Utah ranked as the fastest-growing state in the past decade and the fourth fastest in the past year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, thanks to a relatively high, though slipping, birthrate and in-migration boosting its population by 17.6% over the past 10 years.

All those young adults, newly minted families and workers relocating here for jobs need places to live. The state estimates it has a housing shortage of more than 50,000 dwellings of all kinds, including many thousands of apartments, duplexes and other rental properties.

I see apartment construction everywhere. Are all these units really being snatched up?

Yes. Even after several dramatic years of record building permits for multifamily housing and apartment complexes springing up in cities and suburbs across the region, builders are still behind in erasing that gap.

There is an apartment building boom, to be sure, with soaring skyscrapers in downtown Salt Lake City, dozens of midsize residential towers near transit lines and smaller projects in many corners of the state. While the surge is likely to last well past the pandemic, the market still lacks thousands of units, even among luxury apartments.

A top Utah economist projects the apartment supply probably won’t catch up with demand until beyond 2022.

“It’s tight all over,” said James Wood, the Ivory-Boyer senior fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden and other cities are seeking to encourage more affordable homebuilding, but powerful market forces are often working against them.

The Wasatch Front is running out of undeveloped land, putting new acreage at a premium. The state’s construction labor force has lacked enough workers for more than a decade, especially in specialty trades, which means some can demand higher pay. And all those materials — lumber, steel, concrete — that go into buildings are costing more.

So, nearly all those new apartments you’re seeing are more expensive than usual to put up. And their owners charge higher rents to cover the price tag.

How can I get an edge in this rental market?

There’s no easy answer, but one idea might be to look for apartments in the suburbs of Utah, Salt Lake, Weber, Davis and Tooele counties — especially depending on how strong your options are for working from home. There’s been a lot of new construction in many of those areas — even since the pandemic began.

Generally, those new towers in downtown Salt Lake City are way out of most people’s price range, some renting at over $2,000 a month.

But in southern Salt Lake County, you’ll find communities that have added tens of thousands of apartments and town homes, particularly Sandy, Draper and West Jordan. And although it’s hardly alone, South Salt Lake offers examples of large apartment communities built near TRAX and bus rapid transit lines, providing the potential to forgo a car to get to work or play.

Under state law, more moderately priced housing options should start sprouting near transit lines and bus routes.

Another tip: Don’t just seek out vacancies in large complexes. Many Utah rentals are single-family homes owned by big financial institutions and other investors or are located in smaller complexes of between two and five units. “Mom and pop”-owned rentals also remain widespread.

And remember, the fiercest and most effective apartment hunting now happens online, via sites such as Trulia, Zillow, Rentler, Apartments.com and Craigslist.

So, when will the affordable housing picture improve?

Utah cities are more aware than ever that the state needs more affordable homes and, with shifts in policy, more dwellings with moderate rents will be gradually coming on line this year and beyond, with a promise they will be kept that way.

State law requires most cities to develop plans for encouraging more housing, under threat of giving up money for roads if they don’t.

But what is “affordable” depends on what you earn and can spend when putting around 30% of your income toward housing. Right now, median incomes in the region are at roughly at $30,800 per individual and $71,620 for the state’s average household, which in Utah is a little over three people.

Most of the affordable apartments being built these days with government assistance are for people earning about 60% or more or those wages or more, with only a small slice set aside for truly low-income Utahns.

What’s more, lower-priced affordable dwellings built with city backing typically measure in the dozens per project these days, while Utah’s home shortage is in the tens of thousands.

What should I do if I’m falling behind on my rent?

You’re not alone, by any means. Thousands of Utah renters have hit a wall with the pandemic. They’ve been more likely to work in jobs hit hard by COVID-19 slowdowns, including hospitality, retail and office work, and more likely to have started into the health crisis behind on a bill or two.

If you haven’t already, reach out to your landlords and let them know.

There’s a nationwide moratorium in place on evictions until the end of this month for folks displaced by the pandemic, and the new Biden administration is expected to extend that.

At the same time, state officials are preparing for nearly $215 million in rental assistance to pour into Utah under the latest COVID-19 relief package from Congress — money to help pay rents like yours until the crisis, hopefully, abates.

Compared to other states, Utah has not seen as large a trend toward renters or homeowners falling behind on their monthly payments. A representative for Utah’s apartment owners say that’s been largely due to government pandemic relief, in the form of $1,200 one-time payments and, for a time, enhanced unemployment benefits.

All the same, advocates for renters say the pandemic has brought widespread hardship and made the home shortage even worse — and people need help.