Natalie Brown: A question for Latter-day Saints and all of us — Do we really need such large homes?

Scriptures warn against wealth hoarding and economic inequities. So here’s how we can help solve the housing crunch — and help neighbors and the planet while we’re at it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Housing in St. George in May 2023. Tribune guest columnist Natalie Brown says people need to weigh carefully the personal, societal and environmental costs of the type of home they choose.

“And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Matthew 19:24

“Yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.”

Alma 4:12

“Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.”

D&C 104:18

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold a spectrum of political opinions, but many have increasingly acknowledged that Christ, the Book of Mormon and other teachings unequivocally warn against the dangers of hoarding wealth and economic inequality.

Indeed, the church itself faces scrutiny over its own financial resources and the difficult question of when a rainy day fund becomes wealth hoarding. Yet even those who are convinced that Christ literally meant what he said about rich men are unsure how to respond, whether individually or in their voting patterns. I want to suggest that one aspect of our lives that we might examine lies close to home.

Latter-day Saints give extraordinary amounts of their time and resources to their church and other humanitarian causes. Despite this generosity, the Wasatch Front routinely displays conspicuous consumption in the form of luxurious, single-family houses.

Almost invariably, this amassing of wealth sometimes is justified in the name of providing a foundation for family, friends and community. Dwelling in a large house frequently is associated with financial success and leadership potential within the church. And, ironically, many people have little choice but to live in such homes because this is the primary kind of housing offered in the area.

There are, of course, many innocuous reasons why some people prefer single-family housing, including space, seclusion and an aesthetic that evokes security. I live in a single-family home myself. However, the ecological crisis in the Great Salt Lake and unsustainable housing prices are threatening livability in and around Salt Lake City and hindering the ability of younger generations to form families. President Dallin H. Oaks of the governing First Presidency lamented the “shortage of homes young marrieds can afford to buy” in a recent speech. Continuing the ideal of the large, single-family house risks distancing us from the people who make a house a home.

Single-family homes consume more water and energy than other forms of housing. More significantly, single-family neighborhoods often require people to drive, and fossil fuels are the largest factor contributing to climate change. There are social costs, too. Car dependency frequently means social isolation, especially for people whose community is not centered around a congregation composed primarily of their immediate neighbors.

Single-family housing is also rapidly becoming out of reach for the population that would use it most efficiently: families with children. With few affordable housing options near job centers, families are increasingly pushed farther away. When younger residents move out, neighborhoods lose the human infrastructure that allows businesses, schools and caregiving to function. People displaced from job centers spend more time and financial resources commuting and have less for their families, churches and communities.

Those who already own their homes might feel they benefit from rising prices or dismiss their responsibility for the environment by pointing to the insignificance of their individual choices in the face of industries like agriculture. However, the plain language of the scriptures and Latter-day Saint teachings make clear that the Lord expects us to be stewards of the earth and promote economic justice for all of his children. We must be willing to sacrifice some conveniences and cultural norms in order to build an economically and environmentally just future. There is no innate reason why an eternal family needs to dwell in a mansion here on earth.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A residence at The Register at Post District Residences in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Changing the way we live will take time. We are enmeshed in decades of policies that have shaped our housing environment. What constitutes “enough” for our own families is often relative and unclear. I am not going to sell our single-family home in the absence of affordable alternatives that meet our needs. Moreover, environmentally friendly urban housing often costs more than larger suburban alternatives, underscoring the mismatch between what many want and what they can choose.

Clearly, though, the primary responsibility for correcting the environmental and economic injustices associated with the housing market lies with those who currently own homes and control the political, environmental and financial resources. While I cannot individually enact policy changes, I have found the following questions worth pondering as I discuss with family and friends how we can be part of the solution and reduce our own wealth hoarding:

How we can change the housing dynamic

• Do I need excess space to create community? Culture suggests that you need a “party” house to attract friends and family, but you can host in any space, no matter how humble. Houses with pools and other amenities can be great venues for community events, but assumptions that friends and family should gather at the nicest house in the neighborhood also reinforce class hierarchy, profit homebuilders, and embarrass people with less means more than they build genuine community. Most people value having a turn to host, and most events could also occur at community centers.

• Do I need a lawn? My yard served as essential child care when my kids were toddlers. It also provided a needed oasis during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, my children rarely play in the yard now that they are in elementary school, partly because they are busy with activities and partly because it is often too hot to go outside during the summer due to climate change. It makes sense to move to a house with a smaller yard and let a family with younger children make better use of our space once my children are grown. Whether we can find a house with a smaller yard will depend largely on the willingness of our neighborhood to allow a greater mix of housing types.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A model of one of the tiny homes at the groundbreaking for the Other Side Village in March 2023.

• Can I age in my community while living in a smaller house? Nationally, baby boomers own the largest share of real estate and are increasingly opting to age in place rather than sell. Their reasons are understandable, such as wanting to maintain their place in a beloved community or feeling a connection in their home to their past or deceased loved ones. For Latter-day Saints in areas with a high membership density, moving down the block can mean being assigned to a new ward, or congregation, and losing your community hub.

However, decisions not to sell, coupled with policies that have prevented the construction of sufficient new housing, create demographic challenges and environmental problems. Increasing numbers of younger people are not having the opportunity to form communities due to the choices of prior generations. Permitting a mix of housing types could allow seniors to maintain their communities as they age while allowing families with children to occupy single-family homes. Perhaps the church could also show more flexibility by allowing seniors who move to attend services within their former ward boundaries.

• Do I need extra space to host adult children and grandchildren? There are genuine benefits to having a home that stays in the family and that serves as a multigenerational retreat. Indeed, some families find it mutually beneficial to live in a multigenerational setting. In other instances, grandparents maintain single-family homes so that grandchildren can visit once or twice a year.

There are alternative spaces for occasional family gatherings. Families can easily rent a vacation home or have an out-of-state reunion for the cost of keeping a house that spends most of the year unused. It’s worth a conversation about what your family values and how the family house promotes or detracts from those aspirations.

• Is it consistent with the gospel to live in a house that makes people think “that is a nice house?” I cannot answer that question for anyone else. I cannot say what constitutes “too nice of a house.” Usually, these questions are relative. I, however, would rather host events in cramped accommodations than feel uncomfortable because I have so much more than my guests.

• Will my remodel or new build extend affordable housing options in the neighborhood or displace lower-income people? I have decided to remodel my house’s 1960s kitchen, partly because this is the most affordable option to accommodate my family. While this will raise the resale value of my house, it will also make it less likely that my house is scrapped in the future to build a multimillion-dollar mansion. We should ask whether our choices are building pathways or erecting gates. The answer is not always clear.

• Do other people deserve the opportunities for homeownership and equity that I enjoy? If so, then we need to find solutions for building more housing near job centers rather than dismissing proposals that might change aspects of our neighborhoods. Of course, we each can identify reasons why our neighborhood should not change. This tendency of homeowners to block inclusive reforms is so universal that it has been dubbed NIMBYism, short for “not in my backyard.”

We need higher densities

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new residential and hospitality center known West Quarter, located at 100 South and 300 West in Salt Lake City.

But density is better for the global environment and enables more people to find adequate housing. Allowing duplexes, condominiums and accessory dwelling units does not need to bring blight. It can bring housing opportunities that better meet our needs and finances. It can add architectural interest to dated neighborhoods, allow us to stay in our communities as we age, and let our children come home to the communities in which they grew up.

Part of the solution must also include policies that allow renters to build something equivalent to equity or enjoy something equivalent to the mortgage interest deduction, because they cannot save when the housing shortage allows owners to extract unaffordable rents. Salt Lake City, for example, is exploring a nonprofit housing proposal that would return to tenants 75% of their building’s profits. More such thinking is needed to rectify the economic gap between renters and owners.

Most of my discussion questions assume the luxury of having a choice about housing. Numerous people, however, have lost hope of ever being able to afford a house or return to hometowns from which they are now outpriced. This inequality is not the Lord’s way. It’s a failure that rests on us when we consume more than our fair share of the world’s economic and environmental resources — even if it is in the name of family.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.