Opinion: More suburban sprawl won’t fix Utah’s housing affordability problem

To solve the state’s affordable housing crisis, Utah needs more walkable neighborhoods.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New home construction in Saratoga Springs on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

Utah’s housing market has reached historic levels of unaffordability. Yet, with the 2024 legislative session now over, state lawmakers appear unwilling to significantly address the issue.

In a post-session press conference, Gov. Spencer Cox pointed to the passage of HB572, which establishes a $300 million low-interest loan program for developers building affordable homes, as a significant milestone in the state’s housing agenda. Other major housing policies passed this session include $41 million for Utah’s first-time homebuyer program and modest reforms around modular home development.

Perhaps the most impactful housing bill, though — HB306, which allows housing markets to function according to actual demand by prohibiting urban cities from mandating large residential lot sizes — was blocked from even receiving a committee hearing.

Without zoning reforms like this, Utah’s current housing policies will likely perpetuate suburban sprawl with limited benefit to affordability. The Legislature’s failure to engage this critical issue raises profound concerns about the effectiveness of Utah’s housing strategy and its long-term implications on transportation.

According to a 2023 housing audit request by the Legislature, Utah needs to build 28,000 homes per year just to keep up with forecasted growth. And that is in addition to Utah’s current housing shortage which will likely exceed 37,000 units in 2024. New housing development is clearly needed, but what types of homes should be built?

Continuing to develop suburban sprawl will hurt more Utahns than it helps. Low-density sprawling development is estimated to cost the United States more than $1 trillion a year compared to more compact, traditional development due in part to higher spending on infrastructure, city services and transportation. These costs are passed onto homeowners through higher taxes and fees, making homeownership less affordable.

Suburban sprawl spreads out development, increasing the distance between homes, workplaces and amenities. This car-centric design makes walking and biking less feasible and is a persistent challenge in Bike Utah’s planning work across the state. It also further exacerbates the cost of homeownership through longer commute times, increased air pollution, declining health outcomes and diminished social connection.

And ultimately, suburban sprawl won’t reduce home prices for the majority of Utahns who prefer to live in walkable, connected communities. Many of the most expensive communities in Utah are expensive because of high demand for their walkable streets, mixed-use buildings and missing middle housing. Truly addressing housing affordability will require building more of these walkable neighborhoods.

Zoning reform must be at the center of this housing affordability discussion, particularly if we value free market principles. Most city zoning laws impose overly restrictive requirements on lot sizes, setbacks and housing types, distorting housing markets while perpetuating the dominance of large, single-family homes in disconnected neighborhoods. Instead, cities should meaningfully allow for a diversity of housing types and sizes, such as small-lot single-family homes, duplexes and townhomes.

As we address housing affordability, we cannot continue the failed, car-centric patterns of suburban sprawl. Bike Utah urges policymakers to support zoning reform and allow walkable housing development that truly responds to the needs of Utah residents.

(Photo courtesy of Cameron Carter) Cameron Carter

Cameron Carter is the planning and policy specialist with Bike Utah.

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