Housing ranks as Utahns’ biggest worry, so much so that more are saying: Enough!

New poll indicates 1 in 4 favor some kind of limits on growth.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City covered in fresh snow, as seen Dec. 15, 2021. A new poll shows Utahns are worried as never before about the effects of rapid growth on their quality of life.

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After a record-obliterating year of escalating home prices and rents, housing is now central to Utahns’ rising worries over the state’s meteoric growth.

New polling finds more residents believe growth continues to jeopardize their quality of life than think otherwise — a dramatic shift from sentiment gauged in 2014, with 1 in 4 now favoring steps to slow or stop growth.

Respondents also cited soaring housing costs and a shortage of available homes — by a wide margin — as the worst consequences of growth and the Beehive State’s nation-leading 18.4% rise in population since 2010.

Traffic congestion and environmental concerns were a distant second and third. Tracking data also indicate most Utahns think their quality of life is still improving, but that rosy outlook is notably less common among residents than it was in 2014, data indicate, and spiraling housing costs have them increasingly worried.

The findings — from a November 2021 poll commissioned by the regional planning agency Envision Utah — emerge as housing markets continue to reel from a stunning 27% rise in home prices across the state in 2021, smashing the prior one-year record of 20.1% set in 1978.

Analysts and real estate agents also say it is highly unlikely the increases are the result of a bubble nor will they abate anytime soon. Projections for 2022 are that home prices will vault another 10% to 12%, with no immediate signs of a slowdown longer term.

Records smashed

Salt Lake County closed 2021 with its median price for a single-family home hovering at $575,000 — an all-time high, according to new data from the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. Housing prices across the wider region surrounding Salt Lake City now exceed those in 87% of all major U.S. metropolitan areas, the National Association of Realtors said.

And in stark evidence of what some call “gentrification,” the yearly salary needed to buy a median-price home with a standard mortgage in Utah’s most populous county climbed to $101,400 last year, almost double the $58,100 annual paycheck required in 2015. Yet, virtually every county in Utah saw steep home price gains last year.

Average rents, too, continue to see unprecedented double-digit hikes year over year, rising by as much as 50% over the past two years in some pockets along the Wasatch Front, researchers with the nonprofit Utah Foundation have found. Those rises in rent are happening despite a boom in apartment construction.

Utah has long been prone to rapid housing price acceleration and saw similar bursts in 1994 and 2006, said Jim Wood, longtime housing analyst and a senior economist at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. But during the past 40 years, Wood added, “we’ve had nothing like what we had last year. It’s been the most extraordinary year in my experience.”

Wood said 2022 could further define what he called a “platinum age” for Utah’s real estate industry and other winners in the housing surge. Utah’s 700,000 or so existing homeowners saw their combined home equity climb by an estimated $82 billion in 2021. High prices have slowed sales, Wood noted, but agents are nonetheless seeing historic total dollar volumes on their commissions.

He and others also warned that the rocketing prices continue to push homeownership out of reach for a swelling number of would-be first-time buyers. “We are leaving out more and more young households and renters,” Wood said, “who would love to get into the housing market.”

Changing views

And the latest pandemic-induced surge in housing demand — fueled by low interest rates, a spike from in-migration and new tastes for suburban life — now appears to be pushing the needle on how Utahns view new development and incoming residents.

The Envision Utah survey, conducted by Reston, Va.-based Heart+Mind Strategies, reached a representative sample of 800 Utah adults in mid-November, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Fully 46% favor some kind of management or curbs on growth, up from 28% six years ago, while 38% sided with the idea that growth “should be strongly encouraged and fostered,” compared to 59% who supported it in 2014.

More crucially in a rock-ribbed Republican state such as Utah, residents with conservative and GOP leanings, baby boomers and those with relatively high incomes were more likely to feel growth is negative and should be managed or limited. Liberals, Democrats, single men and college graduates, meanwhile, tended to be more receptive to unfettered growth.

That is a big change and a tilt that Envision Utah spokesperson Jason Brown describes as especially worrisome. “Growing resistance to or hesitation about growth,” he said, “can pretty quickly lead to policies and practices, either statewide or in local communities.

“We can look at California as a good example of what happens when you try to limit growth by reducing new housing,” Brown said. “It just drives up the cost of housing and makes things less affordable, less attainable and less equitable.”

What to do?

Growth and housing are now prominent issues on Utah’s Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are vetting new policies to promote more moderately priced housing, urged on by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

The first-term Republican governor lamented in his State of the State address that Wasatch Front residents were experiencing what rural dwellers have endured for years: “The terrible realization that our kids and grandkids might not be able to live near us.”

“In rural Utah that happens because of a lack of jobs,” Cox told lawmakers. “Along the Wasatch Front, it’s due to the unsustainable increase in housing prices.”

New bills in the 2022 legislative session, he said, would seek “to remove government regulations that needlessly increase Utah’s housing prices.”

“We can increase supply without decreasing quality of life,” the governor said. “This one will not be easy. But we cannot let our state become California.”

The new Envision Utah poll, however, shows Utahns are divided about how to improve the state’s housing picture. About 1 in 3 Utahns put a high priority on expanding the variety of homes available in the state, including more single-family homes on smaller lots, town homes, duplexes and apartments — with lower income, younger and unmarried residents more likely to feel that way than not.

Residents told pollsters they view affordability and helping the disadvantaged as the main benefits from more housing variety, but they also see big downsides to allowing additional housing density — with congestion, increased crime, noise, a sense of crowding and packed schools chief among them.