Peter Reichard: Can Utah bring in new housing types without ruffling feathers?

‘Middle housing’ offers the potential to increase the supply of housing.

Those struggling to get developments done often use the acronym NIMBY – not in my backyard – to describe opponents of their plans. While it may serve as a useful shorthand for neighborhood opposition to projects for the common good, in many cases it may also be unfair.

Most Americans’ wealth is tied up in their home, a home that they often choose because of the quality of life the neighborhood offers. To routinely throw out such ad hominem attacks against people who may just be trying to protect their home values and their quality of life can come off as counterproductive or spurious. After all, one sign of a healthy neighborhood is when the neighbors care about what happens next.

That said, we live in a market economy. Neighborhoods are not changeless museums. Two of the great challenges facing Utah are a growing population and rising housing prices. Changing the way we grow, and in some cases allowing change in our neighborhoods, will be necessary to meeting these challenges.

So, we must find a balance, bringing in new housing and new housing types, but in a way that respects the quality-of-life concerns of existing neighborhoods.

In November, the Utah Foundation launched a multi-part study, “Is the Middle Missing? A Guide to Expanding Options for Utah Homebuyers and Renters.” The newly released third installment, “Utahns’ Development Preferences,” draws on the findings of a recent Utah Foundation survey to reveal favored approaches for new housing.

“Missing Middle Housing” is a term that encompasses a variety of multi-unit housing buildings that are house scale, facilitate neighborhood walkability, accommodate changing demographics and preferences, and are available to people with a range of incomes. Middle housing offers the potential to increase the supply of housing, but at a scale that is not objectionable to most neighbors and in a manner that can improve upon neighborhoods.

Like it or not, housing development in Utah is already changing. For example, in Salt Lake County, single-family detached development — which has long been predominant — is becoming less common (only 24% of new units in 2020), while middle housing is on the increase (32%), and larger multifamily units are taking up the lion’s share of new development (44%).

Is this what Utahns want? Respondents to the Utah Foundation survey say they prefer single-family detached housing, though they did offer positive responses to some small middle housing with the appearance of a single-family home. Most survey respondents (60%) support more affordable housing options in their neighborhoods, with 38% strongly supporting more options. To address affordability issues, about 46% of survey respondents would accept middle housing in their neighborhoods. But Utahns are generally not fond of having apartment complexes nearby.

In other words, there is the possibility of bringing in a wider variety of housing units, even within existing neighborhoods, but it should harmonize with the neighborhoods. Several developers are already blending new multifamily units into predominantly single-family neighborhoods, forming development patterns that resemble historic approaches. Utahns’ preference for the appearance of single-family homes suggests that middle housing will meet with greater acceptance if developed in keeping with the style and scale of single-family dwellings.

Getting style and scale right is essential. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents say that style is the most important factor, other than housing type, in their housing preferences. That is followed by scale – or the size compared to other homes (64%).

Finally, expanding homeownership opportunities is critical to preserving Utah’s socio-economic strength, and therefore is an important component to any development strategy focused on middle housing. Homeownership is correlated with wealth; the median homeowner net worth is $255,000, while the median renter net worth is $6,300. However, in 2020, the share of renters priced out of Utah’s median-priced home jumped to 73%, from 63% the year before.

To begin to arrest that trend, we’ll have to get creative. We’ll have to be more flexible. And developers and neighbors will need to listen to each other.

| Courtesy Utah Foundation Peter Reichard has been named as president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Read the study “Is the Middle Missing?” at utahfoundation.org.