Shortly after visiting Utah on a trip to see a friend, Dustin Gettel decided to move here. Drawn to “the most beautiful place” he’d ever seen, he moved into a Midvale apartment complex in 2015, before his house had even sold.
Gettel, a newly inaugurated councilman in Midvale, is one of many recent transplants to the state, which is expected to balloon to 1.5 million new residents by 2050.
“I’m kind of what’s happening in Utah,” he said. “I embody all of that. You know, I’m not from Utah. I moved here because there are so many employment opportunities in Utah and that’s, you know, really what you find if you go to these high-density apartments and communities.”
As demographics change, so has the mix of housing options in Utah — with a surge of multifamily developments, including town homes, condos and apartments in cities across the state. That hasn’t always been well received, with opponents to high-density citing increased traffic, decreased property values and apathetic neighbors.
But Gettel seems to buck conventional stereotypes about young apartment dwellers as disinterested in state and local politics and uninvolved in their communities.
“At the root of it, it’s kind of true for some people,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because then community leaders don’t typically reach out to people who live in apartments because they don’t think they’re going to participate. And then they don’t participate because they’re not reached out to.”
When he ran his campaign, Gettel said he knocked on every door in his district, which is made up of a number of high-density housing complexes.
“For the most part, that’s why I won,” he said. “Because I knocked on doors of people who had never heard from a city official before.”
Across the Wasatch Front, most city council members tend to fit a certain mold, said Salt Lake City District 4 Councilman Derek Kitchen.
“Historically speaking, politicians are long-term residents, oftentimes older,” he said. “I think the reality is that when you talk politics, historically it’s been an older white man’s game. So, you know, the demographic shifts in our community are mixing things up.”
Kitchen, who also lives in an apartment, reiterated the importance not only of racial and gender diversity in politics but also of socioeconomic status and life experiences — a perspective Gettel, 35, thinks he brings to Midvale’s council.
“When I’m talking to people who also live in an apartment, I completely understand what they’re talking about when they’re saying, you know, ‘My car is getting broken into, my garage is getting broken into and the property management group is not listening to me. What do I do?’” he said. “I totally can understand that perspective a little bit more than I think the other council members can.”
A new ‘American dream’
Across the Wasatch Front, the current mix of housing options is 75 percent single-family homes and 25 percent multifamily (which includes town houses, condos and apartments), according to Wasatch Front Regional Council Executive Director Andrew Gruber.
As Utah grows, that will change.
“The balance that we see in housing as we look ahead to the future is closer to 60-40,” Gruber said in an interview at the Wasatch Choice 2050 conference last month.
“As we look ahead and we think about what the demand is in the market and the demographic changes that are coming,“ he said, “what we have to be able to do is provide more choices.”
Part of the demand behind that shift is economic, but another aspect may be generational, Kitchen speculated.
“My parents felt like the American dream was to live on a single-family lot, to have their own garage and yada yada yada,” he said. “But a lot of the millennial and younger generations, they prefer to have a little bit of a tighter-knit community where you can walk to your amenities — walk to school, to the grocery store, to the pharmacy.”
Still, many Utahns in recent years have moved farther west and south in Salt Lake County and northern Utah County, according to data from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. They’re seeking affordable single-family homes and, for some, it’s about having a place away from the crowds that high-density housing developments bring.
Haley Hill, a Herriman resident, was behind a movement last November that looked to reject the city’s plan to increase higher-density developments within its borders. She said she and her husband moved their family to Herriman primarily for that extra space.
“I feel like you don’t just end up in Herriman,” Hill said. “You’re not just like, ‘Well, this is the best I can do.’ You purposely want to come out here and get away.”
Hill cites a number of benefits to life in low-density areas, including less crime and traffic and more community involvement.
“I love my neighborhood because we all take care of our yards, we all care about watching out for each other’s kids and each other’s homes. … It’s not that you can’t find that in a high-density area; it just seems less common.”
As pressure builds for cities to favor developments that can house the growing population, Hill said Herriman has already shouldered its share of that burden, noting a number of medium- and high-density developments. And although she sees growth as inevitable, she hopes Herriman can maintain the small-town, wide-open aesthetic she moved there to enjoy.
“As residents, we have a right to say, ‘You know what? This is how we see our city,’” she said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want this person or that person. It means we want space. We want less people. We’re not mad about people coming, it’s just we do have a ton of high-rise town homes and condos and teeny tiny lots.”
As the state grows, Gruber stressed that there’s no single approach to introducing density into an area.
“What works in Salt Lake City may not work in American Fork,” he said. “What works in South Jordan may be different from Ogden or Hooper or any areas around the region. Each community has to think about, ‘What’s the right neighborhood types? What’s the housing mix that they want? What are the transportation choices they’re going to provide?’ There is no one formula.”
‘We do care’
Though the high-density debate has led to frustration in some cities in the valley, it’s been an easier sell in the capital, where such developments won’t change the face of the community as drastically, Kitchen said.
“The biggest thing that I’ve heard in Salt Lake City when there is a debate about density or multifamily housing is that people are sometimes afraid that renters drive property values down,” he said. “And actually the data suggests the opposite — that renters have no impact on property values.”
There is stigma toward renters, said William Rohe, the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a 2013 article for Bankrate, a consumer financial services company. But, he said, the “research just isn’t there” to say for sure whether renters drive down property rates.
And the stigma may just be a stand-in for racial, ethnic and class discrimination, Rohe said.
“People just automatically assume that if you’re going to put up an apartment, you’re getting some sort of third-class citizen to live in them,” Gettel acknowledged. “[But apartments] are expensive and we pay for the convenience of that when many of us could own a home if we wanted to. Some people can’t wrap their head around, like, ‘Why the heck would you want to live in an apartment?’”
Overall, Gettel hopes perceptions of high-density housing and its residents will change as the state’s makeup does.
“I don’t think [Midvale council members] mean any disrespect by it, but they’ll just say when talking about an issue, ‘Well, the apartment people, you know, if they would be more involved …,’” he said. “And I called them out, you know, at one of our candidate things. It’s like, ‘I’m an apartment person.’ … They were doing that tired argument: ‘They don’t care as much.’ And I’m like, ’Hey, I’m here. I live in an apartment; I’m onstage with you as a candidate for City Council. You know, we do care.’”