Are parking lots holding back affordable housing?

Turning vacant buildings and empty parking lots into housing is just one solution outlined in a new report from the Utah Foundation.

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.

Salt Lake City Council member Eva Lopez Chavez recently called up a real estate agent in the hopes of buying a home in the district she represents.

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Despite the boom in construction in Salt Lake City’s core, the 28-year-old who represents a downtown district found that there simply weren’t many homes available.

The dearth of homeownership opportunities is “a huge vulnerability point,” Lopez Chavez said during a roundtable discussion Thursday afternoon.

Lopez Chavez joined Steve Waldrip, the state’s senior advisor for housing strategy and innovation, to discuss the latest report from the Utah Foundation exploring solutions to Utah’s housing crunch. A previous report from the organization found that housing affordability is a top concern for Utah voters.

“There’s not a silver bullet solution to our housing issue,” Utah Foundation researcher John Salevurakis told The Tribune. “We’re almost certainly going to need to embrace a multi-solution approach.”

The new report outlines many potential solutions — but the bulk of them require action from the Legislature.

“It’s clear that the state is the greater power in this sphere,” Salevurakis wrote in an email, “but that is not to say that counties and cities should not implement complementary policies to those enacted at the state level.”

Density and lot sizes

“We haven’t had an issue with market-rate housing in the past,” Waldrip said, “that just hasn’t been something that from a state level or local level we’ve really had to spend that much time worrying about.”

The general rule of thumb is that you spend no more than 30% of your income on housing and that the cost of your home be about two to three times your annual salary.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Apartments under construction on 900 West in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Now, Waldrip continued, the median home price is more than six times the median wage and the state is zeroing in on ways to fix that. Senate President Stuart Adams sponsored a first-time homebuyers program in 2023 and Gov. Spencer Cox is pushing to build 35,000 starter homes in the next five years.

Encouraging density and smaller homes could have the biggest impact, Salveruakis told The Tribune. But taller, denser development in neighborhoods often faces local opposition. In Salt Lake City, citizens spoke out against about a plan to build a 21-story tall apartment building in Sugarhouse. Similarly, an Ivory Homes 21-home project that included accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, sparked controversy.

The governor and other state leaders are working to change the narrative around density, Waldrip said on Wednesday. “Daybreak is a great example of a fantastically dense master-planned community that provides great livability, access, recreation.”

The Utah Foundation report notes that the bulk of residential land in Salt Lake County — more than 88% — “is zoned for single-family houses, which tend to be less affordable than densely allocated housing.”

Salt Lake City, at least, is making changes to its zoning and is open to development. “More supply is going to equate to less of that displacement,” Lopez Chavez said.

Filling in empty spaces

There are a few places Utah could look to boost its housing stock without sprawling: empty buildings.

The Utah Foundation found that roughly 110,000 units are vacant in Utah. That number includes homes that are in the process of being sold or rented, vacation homes, and investment properties.

“If even 10% of Utah’s total vacancy number is driven by speculation or represents second or third homes that sit idle the vast majority of the time,” Salevurakis wrote, “incentivizing the sale or rental of these homes could theoretically fill a third of Utah’s current housing deficit.”

Tax policy helps discourage second home ownership to a certain extent, Salevurakis said, but some cities have instituted high fees for homes that are vacant more than six months each year.

It’s not hard to find a vacant or abandoned building in Salt Lake City’s core. Lopez Chavez said the city is interested in activating those spaces. “There’s kind of two ways to see this: You could provide carrots. You could provide kind of a strong hammer,” Lopez Chavez said. “I like the velvet glove, iron fist approach.”

But when it comes to additional taxes on vacant buildings, she said, the Legislature would have to step in.

There’s also another source of large, underused open land: parking lots. The Utah Foundation recommends reducing parking requirements as one way to boost affordable home stock.

“Parking is a significant cost in terms of both finance and land use,” the report notes. But turning parking lots into homes would require other systematic changes.

“In order to really look at parking lots and the potential redevelopment of them into housing,” Salevurakis said, “it’s likely necessary to simultaneously rethink the car-centric nature of our society, and create more walkable communities and more active transportation.”

How quickly could Utah boost homeownership?

Many of the solutions outlined in the report could take years, if not decades to work.

But there are a few strategies that, if implemented today, would help Utahns purchase homes immediately, Salevurakis said. Down-payment assistance programs and shared-equity models (when a homeowner does not own 100% of the land or receives assistance in exchange for a deed restriction) are two examples.

But those programs can only work if there are homes to buy. That’s where boosting supply comes in.

“Facilitating construction by making financing available to developers,” Salevurakis said, “that might take a little bit longer.” A vacancy fee could put “those houses on the market very quickly as people try to avoid the cost of holding.”

Lopez Chavez didn’t share if she found a permanent place to call home, but stressed that Salt Lake City needed to continue welcoming people into the city. “Density is needed far and wide,” Lopez Chavez said.

“I will happily take anybody that wants to move to Salt Lake City,” she said, “my hope is that anybody’s children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren could move to our city.”