Andra Ghent: To prevent SLC school closures, allow more family-sized housing

The biggest barrier to getting more families in Salt Lake City zoning.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emerson Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

Salt Lake City families are understandably despairing that seven public schools are on the chopping block due to low enrollment. Make no mistake, closing neighborhood schools will harm kids’ physical and mental health and make their parents’ lives more difficult.

When kids don’t live close enough to their school to walk or bike to it, it deprives them of desperately needed physical activity. The most visible symptom of physical inactivity in our kids is our rising childhood obesity rate. While child obesity is lower in Utah than in other U.S. states, and many obese people are healthy while lots of normal weight people have health issues related to inactivity, Utah’s child obesity rate has followed the national trend and doubled in the last two decades. We shouldn’t be content that we are only putting 10% of our kids at risk for life-long health problems.

Closing neighborhood schools also means that kids won’t live near enough to their schoolmates that they can pop over after school and come home in time for dinner. We need our youth to be connecting with one another in person, rather than via social media. Shuttering neighborhood schools makes it more likely that kids in the same school will live too far away to easily socialize with one another.

Without neighborhood schools, SLC parents will also suffer. They will spend even more time driving kids around and waiting in those dreaded school drop-off and pick-up lines. Sure, some kids will take buses to their new assigned school but, lacking the option of a neighborhood school, many parents will instead opt for a school that doesn’t entitle their child to get bussed. Driving kids to and from school places a unique burden on working parents because school start and end times don’t adjust for parents’ work obligations. The additional driving will worsen our winter air quality, harming the developing lungs of children.

Of course, we can’t operate as many schools when we have far fewer kids in the city than we did 20 years ago. The state is correct that it is fiscally irresponsible to keep open schools with very low enrollment. Demographics have changed and few Utah families have four or five kids these days. With the same number of housing units but fewer children in each unit, not to mention the many Salt Lake City residents occupying housing units without any kids, the math is problematic.

But what if we could do something to increase the number of families living in Salt Lake City? If each family is having fewer kids, the only way to get more kids in the same geographic area is to have more families in the same area. The arithmetic is that simple. And that’s going to require allowing more housing units appropriate for a family. Not studio and one-bedroom apartments but two-bedroom, three-bedroom and maybe even some four-bedroom homes.

Right now, the biggest barrier to getting more families in Salt Lake City is that our zoning makes it illegal to build anything other than a single-family home on a large lot on most land near neighborhood schools. Not only does that mechanically limit the number of families that can live in Salt Lake City, it raises the cost of housing to the point that, for many families, it’s just not an option to live in Salt Lake City.

Fortunately, Salt Lake City Council is ready to consider allowing in more families by revisiting minimum lot sizes and getting rid of single-family zoning. This should be welcome news to Salt Lake City families. While the idea of allowing duplexes throughout the city has been floated, allowing up to four units per lot, and reducing the minimum lot size city-wide to 2,000 square feet, will result in more families given the high cost of replacing a single-family home with more housing units.

We can’t save all of our neighborhood schools. But if we are thoughtful about what it will take to get more families living near our schools, we might be able to save some of them. And, if we don’t take steps to increase the number of families, the seven on the chopping block might not be the last to go.

Andra Ghent

Andra Ghent is a professor of finance at the University of Utah, the academic director of the Ivory-Boyer Real Estate Center and a member of the Salt Lake City Planning Commission.