Partly out of desperation, Utah’s quest for new ways to ease its housing crunch is venturing into delicate political territory.
The raft of ideas wending toward the Utah Legislature’s next session in January for easing the affordability crisis outlines steps state lawmakers were not considering even a few years ago.
The tentative list — approved this week by the state’s Commission on Housing Affordability — includes hefty new penalties for cities that lack state-mandated master plans for boosting construction of more moderately priced housing in their communities.
Among them: withholding vital state money for road and street improvements, known as Class B and C funds, and allowing private landowners to build affordable homes on their properties by right, bypassing zoning review and city hearings.
“This is a little more of a blunt weapon,” acknowledged commission member Chris Gamvroulas, president of Ivory Development, the development arm for Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest homebuilder.
Expecting resistance this session to some of the ideas, Gamvroulas said, “the harder they say no, the more likely it is to have an outcome.”
Legislators also are considering a ban on municipal zoning changes that might restrict new housing construction, called downzoning, and there are moves afoot to curtail some public input on controversial developments.
Several lawmakers also want to tie more closely together the state’s offers of tax incentives for new employers with requirements that they help plan for and develop new housing for their workers.
The commission’s initial budget proposal includes a request to almost triple this year’s expenditure of $55 million on deeply affordable homes and transitional housing for the unsheltered, upping the ask to $150 million.
Commission members, tasked to advise the Legislature on housing policy, were themselves divided Tuesday over many of the proposals and how they might now be drafted into prospective bills by a few senior legislators.
“I have some anxiety,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, “about giving just a handful of individuals power to write something that in the past we’ve worked to come close to consensus.”
The 2023 legislative session starts Jan. 17, and it remains unclear if the commission will share its final proposals publicly before then.
Utah cities are responding to the housing crisis
The latest efforts to eliminate barriers to housing come as Utahns are struggling as never before with the effects of growth, according to a 2021 survey. The regional planning agency Envision Utah has polled statewide sentiment on growth four times in the past 25 years, said Ryan Beck, its vice president for planning.
“This is the first time it came back that Utahns said growth is bad and should be limited,” Beck said. “That’s pretty darn concerning.”
Residents worry about traffic, congestion, safety and loss of open space, he said. “The community feels more crowded, less peace and quiet, overcrowded schools.”
The state also faces a deep divide in views held by rural residents and those living along the Wasatch Front, Beck said. “It is significant and absolutely something we need to focus on.”
In recent years, state lawmakers have passed a series of measures to gradually tighten requirements on Utah cities to develop robust plans for new housing and, in some cases, plan for higher density around transit lines.
City leaders are responding, according to the president of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini.
“Cities and towns in this state are all in with respect to collaborating with the private development community and the Legislature to solve our housing crisis,” Silvestrini said. “And we’ve already made significant progress on that.”
But city leaders acknowledge “we have a problem in our state with respect to the fact that decisions are driven too much by public clamor,” the Millcreek mayor said. Public input “is extremely valuable to the development process — and we don’t want to foreclose that — but there is a point where that becomes unhelpful after a while.”
Silvestrini said the league would propose a way to streamline the approval process for new subdivisions “and limit that public input to one meeting.”
But city officials hotly oppose the commission’s idea of allowing development “by right,” he said. “We see that being extremely problematic with respect to our ability to plan infrastructure,” such as water, sewer, roads and other city services.
“We’re responsible,” Silvestrini said, “for making sure all the parts of the puzzle fit together.”
More ‘skin in the game’ from employers
Cameron Diehl, the league’s executive director, noted that only a few Utah cities have not complied with state requirements on moderate housing plans. And cities are approving new construction at a record-setting pace, Diehl said, with the state’s 40 fastest-growing communities having allowed more than 93,000 new residential units that now await building permits.
“What solutions can help address the need to build those units over the next few years?” Diehl asked.
The commission is also pushing for a shift in how tax incentives are offered by the state Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity to lure jobs to Utah. That’s drawing some pushback from state economic boosters.
“Is it really a place for the businesses that are coming here to consider how affordable housing gets planned, where they can say no to that?” asked Kyle Palmer, director of the Unified Opportunity Commission at GOEO.
Companies receiving the state’s post-performance tax breaks for creating jobs “aren’t transplanting people from out of state and shipping them in,” Palmer said. “It’s not necessarily a new burden on the housing supply. A lot of these are jobs that are intended for Utahns already living here.”
Others noted Utah cities and state officials place other requirements on employers for contributing to infrastructure related to new facilities they build.
“Housing is essential infrastructure,” said David Damschen, former state treasurer who now heads the nonprofit Utah Housing Corp. “It has become a significant impediment to continuing economic growth. It’s serious. I hope that we can all buy into the notion that it’s fair to ask employers to put some skin in the game.”