How much more can we pay? Renters feel tapped out and pessimistic about their options

One woman sold some of her vintage glass collection, and other barely-making-it scenarios.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Utah’s November unemployment rate was the lowest in the nation. Inflation is starting to mellow. Gas prices seem to be a little more reasonable, and U.S. rents are dropping.

But while the state’s overall economic outlook seems bright, for Utah renters, life remains difficult. And fresh data delivered to Gov. Spencer Cox on Jan.12 shows housing — still in short supply and still too expensive for many Utahns — is sure to be a pinch on the 2023 state economy.

We recently polled readers for their experiences about renting in Utah. We received more than 40 responses. The Tribune spoke with more than a dozen renters about how they managed to find a place to live, what sacrifices they made to afford hundreds of dollars in rent increases and whether they hoped to own a home one day.

These are a few of their stories.

Who can afford “luxury?”

Growing up in Indiana, Emily Endicott learned the basics of money management early.

Her father, an acolyte of financial talk show host Dave Ramsey, emphasized one point in particular.

“My dad was like, ‘you cannot spend more than 25% of your income on housing,’” Endicott recalled.

“And I’m like, ‘is that before or after taxes?’”

(Emily Endicott) Emily Endicott, 24, initially struggled to find an affordable rental in Salt Lake City.

When Endicott graduated from Purdue University in May of 2020 and accepted an engineering job offer in Utah, she created a sprawling spreadsheet of the apartments available months before she would actually move.

“I thought Salt Lake City was going to be cheap,” she said. “Turns out everyone knows about Salt Lake City and everyone wants to live here.”

Eventually, she landed in a studio in a downtown apartment complex where base rent cost about $1,050. There was also a litany of mandatory ‘add-on’ fees, from a cable subscription she didn’t want to a monthly pest control fee.

She realized she wouldn’t be able to afford her rent long-term — but caught a break about a year later when she and her partner decided to move in together and found a place for roughly $1,400 a month.

They both have good jobs and living together has eased their financial burdens, but still they worry about how they will manage if their rent goes up a couple more hundred dollars.

Endicott is the type of 24-year-old with savings goals — she is stashing away money in case of a medical emergency and for next year’s car insurance bill. She plans her week’s meals around food that’s on sale.

But Salt Lake City’s sky-high rents have made achieving a comfortable, middle-class life increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Endicott is quick to admit she has had many advantages in life. Her parents helped her pay for college and she is working in a lucrative field. She is frustrated by the extremes Salt Lake City has to offer — either luxury apartments or, she said, just a little hyperbolically, “living in squalor.”

“And all of the apartments that I see going up downtown are these luxury apartments,” Endicott noted. “I’m an engineer. I’m making $72,000 a year,” she said. “Who is making more than me and wants to also rent these luxury apartments? If you’re making more than me, you would be buying a house right now.”

She also would like to buy a home soon, but isn’t sure she will ever be able to afford one in Utah.

“The only reason I feel any sort of comfort right now is because I live with someone,” Endicott said. “Luckily, the person that I live with is the person I am in love with.”

Side hacks and selling Pyrex

Jennifer Fei, 49, is a single mom with two teenage girls. She lives in a two-bedroom bungalow with her daughters in Sugarhouse. When she moved in seven years ago, rent was about $1,300 a month.

Rent rose a little bit each year, but when she signed her most recent lease last June, her landlord bumped it up by $410. Her monthly rent is now $1,965.

“I’m actually lucky,” Fei said. “I’m still technically under market value for a two-bedroom, one-bath in the neighborhood.”

But with two kids and a salary of roughly $60,000 a year, Fei is only able to afford her rent by working side jobs and selling some of her more valuable possessions. For example, she sold pieces of her vintage Pyrex collection.

“It’s fine,” Fei said. “I don’t need this vintage Pyrex piece if someone’s willing to pay me $900 for it right now. I need that $900 now.”

If her rent increases again though, Fei isn’t sure what she’ll do. When she looks online at other two-bedroom rentals, her options are limited. Most of the newly constructed apartment buildings are way outside of her price range.

“The way the rental market is really doesn’t help individuals who want to rent,” Fei said. “It’s only good for families or dual income or roommate situations. But if you’re a single income family like me, we’re really limited.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anthony Valdez installs windows in the first modern high-rise apartment community in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, Liberty Sky Apartments offers 272 residential units featuring studio, 1 and 2 bedroom apartment homes. Highlighting the building is the 21st-floor amenities, featuring a year-round outdoor pool and hot tub, fitness center and fitness studio, outdoor lounge, theater room and clubroom, pictured on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

Five minutes or you’re out

When Vincent Carson, 26, began his search for a new apartment, he spent his days constantly refreshing apartments.com, KSL classifieds and Facebook marketplace.

“I actually was pushed out of Austin [Texas] because I couldn’t afford it,” Carson said. “I thought that Salt Lake would be cheaper and it was not,” he laughed.

He lucked out when he finally spotted a listing for under $1,000 in the 9th and 9th district.

When he messaged the landlord on Facebook marketplace, the listing had only been posted for about five minutes.

“They said,” Carson recalled, " ‘We already have other people looking. Come right now.’ And I put my name down like that day.”

The price and location are right, but there are some “weird things,” Carson said, that make his living situation less than ideal.

For instance, there are monthly building and apartment inspections.

“It just feels weird that I’m an adult and it feels like a freshman dorm,” Carson said. Plus his lease, Carson said, allows for a pet with a monthly deposit. But every time he has broached the subject of getting a cat, he’s been told no.

Renters like Carson don’t have a lot of other options, or ability to push back in a competitive market.

“My issue with moving,” Carson explained, “is I just think I’ll end up in a worse place.”

(Vincent Carson) Vincent Carson, 26, moved to Salt Lake City after getting priced out of Austin, Texas.

Rattle and hum

Stefan Brems, 29, found a top floor, corner unit in downtown Salt Lake City for a reasonable price a few years ago. His rent didn’t go up for three years, but that’s because his building vibrates.

“The building vibrates because of a fan on top of it from a restaurant underneath it,” Brems said. “And it sort of comes back and goes away every now and then.” On the worst days, the windows shake and dishes rattle.

“The reason why I’m able to tolerate it so well is because I work for an airline,” Brems said. “And so I am out of my apartment four days a week. So it’s not like I’m being vibrated every moment of every day.”

Allergies vs. affordability

Ivana Martinez, 23, couldn’t find an affordable one-bedroom apartment so she gave up and moved into a house with three roommates in Salt Lake City’s Central City neighborhood.

She loves the location and the balcony on the house, but she discovered shortly after moving in she was allergic to her roommate’s cat.

“It’s in a great neighborhood,” Martinez said. “But I’m also like, huh, I can’t breathe and I’m constantly sneezing.”

So Martinez has begun looking for a new place to live, again. But the dearth of affordable options coupled with excess Facebook scams has made the process frustrating.

She is hoping “there’s something that opens up that isn’t outrageously priced.” Martinez found a few apartments in the $1,300 range, but couldn’t get out of her lease at the time.

But the tradeoff between breathing and affordable rent is not one she wants to make over the long term.

Can this new legislator move the needle?

Many renters voiced frustration with the lack of protections in the state and how powerless they felt over their futures.

“Utah really is tipped pretty far against renters,” said Nate Blouin, 33, a renter and newly elected Democratic state senator. Blouin represents Senate District 13, which includes portions of Millcreek and South Salt Lake. “It’s really difficult because there’s such a bias toward landlords in the Legislature versus a voice for tenants.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democratic State Sen. Nate Blouin wants to make rental policy reform a priority at the 2023 Utah Legislature. Here he is at a listening session with the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.

In an article published last year, the Utah Investigative Journalism Project found that lawmakers involved in real estate – from property development to legal practices to building management – made up almost one-fifth of the Legislature. In the Senate, that percentage shot up to almost 40%.

“In the Legislature, we hear a lot about how difficult it is to be a landlord,” Blouin said. “To me, it’s a lot more difficult to be a renter. You don’t have control over your space, you don’t have a lot of protections over things like getting evicted.”

Local zoning regulations could use some work, Blouin said. He noted that it is difficult for cities to create affordable housing incentives in established neighborhoods. The state might help by creating a basic set of requirements for zoning new residential units.

“Generally local control is a very good thing,” Blouin said. “I’d like to see cities have more control over certain issues, but I think on housing there needs to be a more moderated conversation, perhaps, through some state interaction.”

One proposed development project in the high Avenues neighborhood garnered fierce opposition from residents. The Ivory Homes Capitol Park Cottages project would place 19 new homes and at least 14 accessory dwelling units in the neighborhood. Arguments over density, preserving the character of the neighborhood and equity broke out. Ultimately the Salt Lake City Council approved the project, but with conditions for setbacks from the street and a prohibition on turning the dwellings into short-term rentals.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The first modern high-rise apartment community in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, Liberty Sky Apartments offers 272 residential units featuring studio, 1 and 2 bedroom apartment homes as seen on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. While the low-income housing market is enduring a crisis, construction on these types of downtown high rises continues to boom. While this complex likely won't help address this crisis, buildings of this stature could set a precedent to create more housing opportunities in Utah.

Blouin acknowledges that the way most middle-income people build wealth is through homeownership — something that has become increasingly out of reach.

One potential solution would be “subsidizing loans from the state level,” Blouin said.

Salt Lake City still has a long way to go, he said, but he is optimistic and sees powerful players in government advocating for more affordable housing

“We are headed in the right direction,” Blouin said. “But it’s not going to happen overnight.”