Salt Lake County really attracts young adults, but its high housing costs repel others

Salt Lake County is a huge magnet attracting young adults thanks to its colleges, ample jobs for those just starting out and its urban vibe, according to a new study about migration in Utah.

But the county’s high housing prices are chasing away many families with children and retirees — virtually every age group except young adults.

That is among conclusions of a new study that looks at migration in every county in Utah, and what age groups and types of people each attracts or loses — and why. It was released Tuesday by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“We always talk about how so many people are moving to Utah. Now we want to start answering more questions about who’s moving here and why — and how that varies by county,” said study co-author Emily Harris, a demographer at the institute.

“Counties can look at this and ask, ‘Is there anything we’d like to do to attract a different mix?' ” she adds. “It also allows them to ask if they have the right kind of amenities for the people who are coming.”

The data is important, she adds, because 1 of every 6 Utahns moves in a given year.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The study divided counties into eight groups to describe types of migration: large metro (Salt Lake County); ring (Box Elder, Davis, Juab, Morgan, Tooele, Summit and Wasatch); college (Cache, Iron and Sanpete); coal (Carbon and Emery); oil and gas (Duchesne and Uinta); tourism/recreation (Garfield, Grand, Kane and Rich); and rural (Beaver, Daggett, Millard, San Juan, Sevier and Wayne).

It said three counties were unique and not easily classified because they were composites of several of the other types: Utah, Weber and Washington.

Harris said the study found that “Salt Lake County is the economic core of the Wasatch Front and really the state. It brings in a lot of jobs. It brings in a lot of people looking for those jobs, especially people young in their career. It's a great place to start out.” Its urban setting, amenities and denser housing is also attractive to that age group.

But young adults and the elderly are the only groups that have more of their members migrating to Salt Lake County than leaving it.

As people get a little older and have families, more of them move to adjacent counties to seek affordable housing. “They may continue to work in Salt Lake County, but they move to ring counties that provide more house for your buck with bigger yards and family-friendly amenities,” Harris said.

Study co-author Pam Perlich says that shows the need to pay more attention to affordable housing.

“A lot of times it’s framed as an issue for lower-income people, but it’s really not. It’s a life-cycle issue for young families needing to have affordable housing,” she said. “It’s important if we want to have a mix of generations and people within neighborhoods, which is a healthy thing.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Ember and Jeremy Ulrich take their daughter Jemma, 1, for a walk around their newly developed neighborhood in Lehi after moving there from Pleasant Grove last October. Along with some friends who were also looking to get more house for their money and ended up moving in next door, Jeremy wanted to be closer to his job at Adobe in Lehi.

While ring counties may pick up the families with children from Salt Lake County, the study says they export their young adults to college counties or other states.

Migration and economies in “college counties” such as Cache (home of Utah State University), Sanpete (Snow College) and Iron (Southern Utah University) are dominated by students and services for them. A high percentage of the population are students.

Harris notes that counties such as Salt Lake, Utah, Weber and Washington also have large universities, “but they are so large and have so many other things going on that migration is not dominated” by college students.

Perlich notes that 30 years ago, Utah County’s migration was dominated by Brigham Young University. Now migration is also heavily affected by people leaving Salt Lake County for cheaper housing and the emergence of Silicon Slopes as a major employment center. So it has characteristics of urban, ring and college counties.

Weber County is also unique, the study says. It has transitioned from an economy that was dominated by Hill Air Force Base to one that has diversified. It has some ring county characteristics with people moving there but commuting elsewhere. And Weber State University contributes to growth as with college counties.

Washington County is unique “with really high retirement migration, but it also imports people of all ages and they also have Dixie College” as a draw for young adults, Harris said.

Some counties continue to live and die with the coal, oil and natural gas industries. And with coal’s continued decline, “In Carbon and Emery counties, you’re just exporting a lot of people — especially young adults because there’s not an economic opportunity for them.”

She says the same thing is happening in rural counties and those that depend heavily on tourism — exporting many of their young people for lack of economic opportunities.

“A really big point that we want to make is that Utah migration is complex, it’s complicated,” Harris said. While statewide numbers make Utah look like a national leader in growth, “it varies a lot county by county." So do the challenges and and potential solutions, she said.