Here’s how Utah’s Republican candidates for governor say they’d deal with the affordable housing crunch

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of various Salt Lake points of interest including the proposed inland port area. Salt Lake Tribune, downtown, capitol, North Salt Lake.

Matthew Wunderli says it’s become “near impossible” to find a home in Salt Lake City for his family of five, as housing prices continue to skyrocket and the state experiences a severe crunch in the availability of affordable places to live.

“A good neighborhood that’s safe, clean [and has] good schools should not be the cost that they are right now,” he said.

As elected leaders grapple with how to address the state’s affordable housing crisis, Utah’s Republican candidates for governor have stepped in with their own plans. And for Wunderli, at least, those proposals will play a big role in determining who he will support in the upcoming June primary election.

Affordable housing has traditionally been the domain of local governments, said Jim Wood, a senior fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute.

But the state Legislature has also taken up the issue, this spring appropriating $10 million in an effort to address an estimated shortage of nearly 55,000 affordable homes statewide, particularly those within reach of lower-income residents.

[Election 2020: Where Utah’s gubernatorial candidates stand on a variety of issues]

While Utah governors haven’t historically played much of a role, strong leadership on the issue could make a big difference, Wood said.

“We’ve made really good headway in the last three or four years but the leadership has to come from the governor and the Legislature,” he said. “Having been involved in this for a long time, it’s clear that state leadership is absolutely essential to, in the long run, address the issue of housing affordability and bend that cost curve.”

Giving cities and counties ‘cover’

City leaders who have worked to support affordable housing have faced public outcry over high density proposals that some residents worry will decrease property values and increase traffic. And elected officials often cave to public pressure, Wood said.

That’s why he argues one of the best things the state can do to promote affordable housing is to give cities and counties “cover.”

“And that is the state has a strong hand and says, ‘OK, this is what cities need to do to address the issue of affordable housing,’” Wood said. “If we don’t, this is our trajectory and this is where we’re going to end up: we’re going to have people leave Utah because of housing costs and we’re going to have trouble recruiting because of housing costs.”

Utah’s Republican candidates for governor say they would work alongside cities to address the affordable housing crunch — but none expressed support for a heavy-handed, top-down approach like the one Wood described.

Former GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said his administration would “never tell cities what to do.”

“But I will tell you that I’ll inspire them to look at things in a new way,” he said in an interview.

Wright says if elected he would work with lawmakers and the state’s Commission on Housing Affordability on legislation to incentivize cities and counties to use “smart growth policies” and would encourage them to approve variances to build more housing units.

The candidate said he also thinks the governor has a role in combating a “not in my backyard” mentality around apartments and condos by using the “bully pulpit” to educate and inform Utahns about affordable housing and its benefits to the state.

Wright is the only Republican candidate who has explicitly addressed affordable housing as a policy platform on his website, a position he says he’s passionate about as a way to address mental health and achievement gaps for kids who don’t have a stable living situations.

In a recent Salt Lake Tribune survey of gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox recognized that government decisions “around zoning, building requirements and other fees and regulations often make housing much more expensive" but said many of those decisions must nevertheless be left to local elected officials.

Still, Cox said, “the state can play a vital role in providing necessary infrastructure and coordinating regional planning necessary to increase density in strategic locations” — like near public transit — “while maintaining the high quality of life that Utahns have come to expect.”

Cox also advocated for an approach to addressing the affordable housing issue that takes into consideration regional nuance.

“There are affordable housing issues in pockets of rural Utah as well that are similar to what we’re seeing on the Wasatch Front but are occurring for very different reasons,” he said in an interview, noting that areas that rely heavily on tourism are seeing wealthy out-of-staters buying up second homes and forcing locals out.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said in a recent debate that he has struggled with the question of “what is the appropriate role of government on the whole affordable housing question” but similarly said he would support municipal and county leaders as they work to tailor solutions to their own communities.

He also sees room to sway big banks and the financial community by putting “a strong arm on the lending institutions to come up with more creative financial packages,” he said in a recent interview.

If elected as governor, Huntsman added that he would look for creative ways to develop underutilized land — and he pointed to golf courses as one example.

“We have golf courses around the state that are not always profitable, particularly in the metropolitan areas,” he said. “They’re going to have to be used at some point for more productive means. How about public/private types of collaboration on affordable housing, things that are allocated and earmarked specifically for affordable housing [with] the end goal being ownership? I think that’s something as well that can be done.”

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, a property manager and real estate developer, argues that "there is affordable housing in the state of Utah” — just not on the Wasatch Front. That problem, he says, boils down to supply and demand and could be fixed in the long term by viewing the economy “from outside the Wasatch Front.”

“As economic opportunities are realized more broadly across the state, housing will be available and more affordable,” he said in The Tribune’s survey. “Supply of housing can and will be met if we stop focusing exclusively on a small geographic area of the state.”

As a shorter-term solution, Hughes advocated for higher density housing to be built in areas closer to transportation nodes, like fixed-rail stations. But the former Utah Transit Authority chairman said he wouldn’t be willing to override local control or decision making to promote any affordable housing policies.

Will they do it?

Though Utah’s Republican candidates for governor have each espoused a plan for addressing the state’s affordable housing crunch, Utah Housing Coalition Executive Director Tara Rollins remains skeptical. Many of them have a track record that hasn’t resulted in much progress on the issue, she said.

Hughes, Rollins argued, did “nothing [for housing] when he was speaker of the House” from 2015 to 2018.

A bill that would have authorized a $100 million bond for building affordable housing died without reaching the full House in the last year of his leadership. And an effort that same year to reward cities that have built enough housing for poorer residents by requiring those without sufficient low-income units to help pay for homeless shelters was fundamentally weakened by the time it passed through the Legislature.

“He always said it was a conflict of interest [to fight for affordable housing] because he was a developer,” Rollins said. “He totally understood, but he wouldn’t fight for it. So there was something political there.”

Hughes disagreed with that assessment, noting he was supportive of several affordable housing bills during his time in office, including efforts to promote collaboration between the state and municipal governments.

And, he said that he’s not a major developer, he argues that his professional background has given him insight.

“It brings perspective; I don’t think it’s a conflict,” he said.

Wright, who has not held or run for public office before, doesn’t have a voting history to look to.

But Rollins expressed concern about his commitment to affordable housing after she emailed his campaign seeking support from his running mate, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, for an emergency rental assistance bill. She received a response earlier this month, a copy of which she shared with The Tribune, that stated the campaign planned to make affordable housing a priority but did not see government funding as an effective long-term solution.

“Government does have a role” in addressing this crisis, she argued.

Wright said in an interview that he would like to see local solutions to affordable housing but all options should be on the table to address the affordable housing crunch.

“My concern [with government subsidies on the national level in particular] is the federal government’s insatiable appetite for spending,” he said.

Cox knows the need for affordable housing, Rollins said, through his work on homelessness as chairman of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee. But she hasn’t seen him as a strong advocate for securing more funding for housing assistance and wishes he would have fought harder for full funding for SB34, the affordable housing bill that this year received $10 million — a fraction of the $35.3 million the sponsor had originally sought.

“He’s in power now. Why isn’t he using his power?” Rollins asked. "What’s going to change when he’s at the helm?”

The Cox campaign said that characterization was unfair and did not reflect his body of work on the issue. The governor and lieutenant governor supported this year’s affordable housing bill in their budget proposal for $25 million and had the year before proposed $15 million in one-time funding with $2 million in ongoing support for a 2019 affordable housing bill that was eventually gutted.

Cox also supported the creation and work of the Commission on Housing Authority and advocates for affordable housing as a primary strategy to end homelessness in his role on the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, the campaign said.

“I am a strong supporter of affordable housing as a core solution to social challenges facing our state," Cox said in a statement. “It is key to a robust economy. I have been actively engaged in creating more opportunities for affordable housing, and looking for long-term solutions. ... I am proud of my record of work in this area and dedication to finding solutions and will continue my strong advocacy in the Governor’s Office.”

Rollins gave Huntsman the most positive review, arguing that he was “extremely good” during his last term for housing. She praised his work particularly on programs that helped people continue to purchase homes and for allocating $1.8 million in economic stimulus dollars to housing counseling in 2009.

“He really understood the importance of people having a positive outcome without creating barriers in the future,” she said. “And I really respected that.”

Whichever candidate ultimately takes the helm next January, advocates agree he will have the opportunity to make an outsized mark on the direction the state takes next on affordable housing.

“It’s not going to happen at the local level and the feds are too distant,” Wood said. "The feds are good for money, and some broad policy guidelines and programs. But they’re not the leader in this and it’s got to be the state. And a governor can do a lot.”

Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this article.

Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.