St. George’s housing crunch leaves working professionals unable to buy a home — or even rent

Well-paying jobs and master’s degrees aren’t enough to get you a home in St. George.

(Alecia Ledward) Alecia Ledward.

St. George • A working professional who oversees pre-nursing programs at several colleges in central and southern Utah, Jennifer Liebert doesn’t fit the stereotype many have for people caught up in St. George’s housing crunch.

But despite Liebert’s high-profile job, $60,000 annual salary and life amidst bucolic redrock cliffs, she often feels St. George more resembles “Paradise Lost” than a slice of heaven.

“I have been priced out of paradise,” said Liebert, who shares a modest three-bedroom apartment near Interstate 15 with Greg Goff, her husband of one year, and still yearns to buy a home.

Alecia Ledward, a medical staff coordinator at Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital, lives in an affordable housing complex in Washington City. Since earning her bachelor’s degree, she now makes too much to qualify for the 1,000 square-foot, three-bedroom twin home she occupies with her four children but is allowed to stay. Alas, the single mother said, she makes too little to live anywhere else.

“If home prices were what they were when we moved here seven years ago, I could probably afford a home,” Ledward said. “But there is no way now. Homes have tripled in price and the interest rates are through the roof. Even if I were to find another place to rent, I would have to find a smaller two-bedroom [rental] and I still would pay more than what I pay now.”

Priced out of paradise

It isn’t any consolation, but Liebert and Ledward are not alone. Many others in the St. George area are facing a similar dilemma.

That’s because the median family income for a family of four in Washington County in 2022 was $83,900, which would qualify for a $390,000 loan, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the average price of a home during the third quarter of last year was $537,000, according to a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

Finding a home for less than $400,000 is not as rare as the proverbial needle in the haystack, real estate agents attest, but it is difficult. Only 215 of the 1,303 homes listed in Washington County last month were affordable to someone making the median family income, according to Washington County Board of Realtors data.

Robert Bolar, a top real estate agent with Summit Sotheby’s International Realty in St. George, said the county’s housing supply has not kept pace with the area’s rapid growth, leading to a shortage of homes for sale.

“With a high demand for homes and a limited supply, buyers are often faced with multiple offers for the same property,” Bolar said. “This can drive up the price of homes and make it difficult for some buyers to afford a home.”

Finding an affordable home or apartment to rent also poses a challenge. According to a recent report by Atwood Innovation Plaza, a full-time worker in the county had to earn $20.21 an hour to afford to rent an average two-bedroom apartment without exceeding 30% of their income. But the average hourly income for workers in the area is just $14.19. The waitlist to get into lower-income housing in some complexes can be two years or more.

While the difficulty Liebert and Ledward have had finding affordable housing is not unusual, their college degrees and circumstances are at odds with the stereotypes or labels that many people apply to those who can’t afford to buy or rent a home or apartment.

While some hold NIMBY(not in my backyard) notions that lower-income housing raises crime rates and lowers property values, housing experts say that is simply not true.

Shirlayne Quayle, housing strategies and policy manager for St. George, said people caught up in the county’s housing crunch are typically educators, nurses, medical technicians, first responders and service workers. When affordable housing is short, she said, communities suffer.

(Jennifer Liebert) Jennifer Liebert.

“We are not just selling those who can’t find housing short, we are selling our entire community short,” Quayle added. “When you look at our service workers — whether they be in our restaurants, health care facilities or financial or educational institutions — the ripple effect of having people serve in jobs in places where they can’t afford to live impacts our quality of life in a negative way.”

Quayle said many who struggle to find housing have compelling stories and have overcome daunting challenges to make significant contributions to the county’s quality of life.

A nurse struggles to find a home

Liebert, for example, fled an abusive relationship when she left Idaho in 2010. She sold the Nintendo Wii the family had received for Christmas and used the money to buy a broken-down station wagon. With the help of an aunt, Liebert was able to do some maintenance on the car and get it running well enough to pile her three daughters in the vehicle and drive to St. George.

Upon their arrival, the family was able to stay two weeks with a relative in a retirement community. Liebert later sought sanctuary in the area’s homeless shelter at the time, which she said was ridden with bedbugs and was unsafe for children.

“The people at the shelter told me I would have to give my children vitamin K so they didn’t get bit as much, and I would have to pack their clothes in black garbage sacks and take the clothes with me every time I left the shelter,” Liebert recalled. “They also told me my children wouldn’t necessarily be safe at the shelter because some people were mentally ill or had problems, so it would be best if I didn’t sleep.”

Fortunately, Liebert was able to find safer accommodations at the DOVE Center, which is a shelter for people escaping domestic abuse and sexual violence. She then enrolled at then-Dixie State College and worked two and three jobs and used her student loans to pay for an apartment. In 2015, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and followed that by earning a master’s degree in nursing education from Western Governors University.

Today, her daughters are grown and on their own. She has a good salary and she and her husband, who has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science but works as a landscaper, are looking to buy a home.

But due to a car payment and college loan repayment, the maximum amount the loan officer said they could qualify for is $300,000 — and that was dependent on listing their car loan under someone else’s name.

“We can’t afford to buy and live here in St. George but we really can’t afford to go anywhere else because our jobs are here,” Liebert lamented.

A working mom, short of the American dream

Ledward and her husband at the time moved with their four children to St. George in 2016.

When Ledward’s husband lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple scrambled to find affordable housing, which was in short supply. She and her husband later divorced and Ledward and her four children have been on her own — she hasn’t collected any child support — ever since.

Carrying 20 hours a semester, Ledward earned a bachelor’s degree in population health with an emphasis in health care administration at Utah Tech University. Her previous job at the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, which paid $17 an hour, enabled her to secure affordable housing.

“When I separated from my husband, I was employed with the health department and my income was low enough with the number of children I had that I was able to get into low-income housing,” she recalled. “It was a miracle because the waiting lists for [that housing] are often two to three years.

“There were so many people who had lost their jobs due to COVID, they couldn’t qualify for low-income housing because you had to have employment,” she added. “So I was next on the list.”

Ledward said her family is a bit cramped but comfortable in their apartment, and she gives the neighborhood high marks for its beauty, safety and cleanliness. Still, she said her circumstances are challenging. She works long hours in her current job and, despite her higher salary, can’t afford to live somewhere else or buy a home.

She is working on a master’s degree in healthcare administration to bolster her ability to support her family.

“I’m exhausted,” she admitted. “The way that life is now with rising food and housing prices, people don’t see the food insecurity experienced by people like us. At one point, we lived off Ramen noodles for six months. We had nothing.”

That said, homeownership — an integral part of the American dream — is still on her bucket list.

“My goal is to have a simple home in a nice neighborhood, nothing more than 1,300 or 1,400 square feet – just big enough to fit my family,” she said. “I don’t have huge expectations. I just want something to call my own and that is stable for my kids.”

Quayle said the experiences related by Liebert, Ledward show that affordable housing is now a problem that is plaguing the middle class as well as lower-income residents.

“We can say, ‘Hey wait, these people are actually my people. They just have different needs than I have right now.’” she said. " ‘Any of us could lose our job and be in that boat, too.’ "

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