NIMBY attitudes hold in Washington County despite affordable housing crunch

People say that they want to keep town homes and duplexes out of the neighborhoods.

(Jim Urquhart | The Salt Lake Tribune) Residential developments in St. George in 2008.

St. George • Evelyn Miller is all-in on supporting more affordable housing in Washington County, but her support comes with a caveat: She doesn’t want multifamily homes anywhere near her home.

“I don’t want to sound politically incorrect,” Miller said, “but that kind of housing is incompatible with the look of my neighborhood. Affordable housing projects are often not aesthetically pleasing, and I don’t want to see something built that could lower my property values or lead to more crime.”

Miller’s aversion to anything other than single-family homes in her St. George neighborhood is not unique. A survey city officials conducted in December in nearby Ivins shows residents there don’t want to see town homes or duplexes cropping up in their neighborhoods, either. More than 70% of respondents in the survey opposed more high-density housing such as town homes and condominiums in their city, and 81% were not in favor of additional apartment complexes and other rentals.

Shirlayne Quayle, housing strategies and policy manager for St. George, said while some residents’ housing concerns are valid, the NIMBY (not in my backyard) narrative about affordable housing isn’t accurate. She said people in need of cheaper housing are often teachers, firefighters, police officers and blue-collar workers, not ne’er-do-wells or criminals.

All told, nearly half of county residents are negatively impacted due to the area’s affordable housing crunch. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 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. Alas, a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, found the average price of a home in the county for the third quarter of last year was $537,000. Last November, Quayle noted, there were 1,200 homes on the market in the county, but only 77 of them were available to people making $84,000 a year.

Home and apartment rentals were no bargain, either. A May 2022 report by Atwood Innovation Plaza in St. George determined a full-time worker in the county had to earn at least $20.21 an hour to rent an average two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30% of their income. Unfortunately, hourly workers in the county only averaged $14.19 an hour.

As bad as the housing problem is, it is projected to get much worse without action. The St. George Metro area — U.S. Census data shows — consistently rates as one of the fastest-growing in the nation over the past decade and the population is projected to more than double by 2060. To meet the housing demand between now and 2030, another 33,000-plus homes are needed, which is 11,000 more than were built between 2010 and 2020, according to the Gardner study.

Quayle and other housing officials say the current housing gap not only affects residents who can’t find a place to live but also leads to a domino effect. When blue-collar workers, first responders, educators and others can’t afford to live in the communities where they serve, they have to live somewhere else, which means businesses, hospitals and schools can not hire enough people. That, in turn, has a negative impact on the quality of life.

A case in point is the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins. Quayle said the facility, one of the highest-rated veterans’ homes in the nation, can’t hire enough nurses, caretakers, janitors and administrative staff to support the veterans who live there due to a lack of affordable housing, among other factors.

“That’s not the kind of community I want to live in,” Quayle said at a housing meeting in Ivins Wednesday. “I want to live in a community that takes care of our veterans and that helps create the kind of housing that the caretakers of those folks can live here …, raise their kids and be a part of our community.”

3D printing and first-time buyer assistance

State Rep. Neil Walter, R-Santa Clara, who also spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, said Washington County has always been a welcoming place for new arrivals and needs to stay that way for those looking to make the area home.

“Part of the reason why we’re having [such] a difficult conversation tonight is because more people want to be part of this great place,” he said.

Walter said help is on the way to accommodate newcomers. He noted that state lawmakers approved more than $200 million to help with housing during the legislative session that wrapped up earlier this month.

Part of that is $50 million lawmakers set aside to help first-time homebuyers get into a new home by offering a $20,000 loan they can use for their down payment, closing costs, down payment assistance or to buy down the interest rates on their loans. The price of the new homes can not exceed $450,000.

Another $51 million, if the bill is signed by the governor, will be allocated to the Low-income Housing Tax Credit to provide developers with financial incentives to build low-income housing. The balance of the $200 million will be used for homeless services, housing preservation and affordable housing technical assistance, according to information Walter provided at the meeting.

Along with the financial carrots, lawmakers also applied a little stick. Cities and counties that don’t submit moderate-income housing plans and fail to actively work toward implementing them can be fined $250 a day until they comply — money which will be funneled into the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which helps fund affordable housing projects.

For all that is being done, Santa Clara architect and innkeeper Richard Kohler argues more must be done. For example, he said cities could require developers building single-family homes to include a casita that the homeowners would be allowed to rent. Affordable housing could also be made to be less obtrusive by cities approving smaller projects that blend in better with existing neighborhoods than projects with hundreds of units.

“We need to be creative in addressing this [issue],” Kohler said.

Some creative solutions suggested in the Atwood Report include 3D-printed construction, which can bring the cost of home construction to about $10,000 and home prices to between $140,000 and $160,000. Other solutions bandied about in Washington County would be streamlining the approval process for more accessory dwelling units like backyard cottages or attached dwellings on single-family lots, as well as loosening regulations to allow for pre-fabrication houses or tiny homes.

While cities and counties have more affordable housing tools at their disposal, those tools are only effective if elected officials have the courage to use them. But courage, housing officials agree, is often in short supply when so many county residents are dead set against more affordable housing.

“Educating the public is the biggest gap we face right now in moving forward,” Quayle said. “Even if we put all these strategies for moderate-income housing in place, if the public comes back and says ‘No, we don’t want that in our backyard,’ then elected officials have to deal with that.”