Cities can grow up, grow out, or grow expensive

By Jesse Harris

It’s been getting harder than ever to get affordable housing in Utah. Or, in some cases, housing at all. Utah’s strong economic performance and historically low cost of living have lead to large influxes of people from other states. This is no longer isolated to the Wasatch Front as St George, Cedar City, and even Logan have all see strong growth in housing prices over the last several years. Not so coincidentally, we’re also seeing an increasing number of fights about zoning and housing density in almost every growing city and town in the state.

For years, there have been major zoning fights over density in Cedar City, Provo, Orem, Holladay, Salt Lake City, and many other cities throughout Utah. The concerns are always the same: traffic, crime, housing values, ill-defined “quality of life”, and so on. Sometimes these concerns are legitimate. A two lane residential road that suddenly has another 100 units worth of traffic added might present issues with safety and noise. The value of a single-family home might be less next to a giant apartment building. Renters may not take the same care of a neighborhood as permanent residents.

But underneath it all is a very strong current of NIMBYism. Ask existing residents and they will likely be able to talk at length about how housing prices are nuts and there needs to be more inventory to accommodate growth. But in the same breath, none of them are okay with that new inventory being near them or high density. “I don’t want to lose my view.” “The character of the neighborhood will change.” “There will be too much traffic on my road that currently doesn’t see more than a few dozen cars a day.” It’s the very definition of NIMBY, wanting something in principle but only if it’s far, far away from them. With most Americans’ net worth being tied up in their home, the fear of losing value is very real.

Many of the areas with the harshest fights have significant student populations and depend on the local university for a significant amount of employment. As the universities grow, so does the demand for inexpensive housing close to campus catering largely to young single adults. Provo has been fighting this since before the Olympics. Despite making what can only be described as Byzantine regulations regarding occupancy (such as requiring that the renter of a basement apartment be somehow related), many single family homes now have up to a dozen students and about as many cars. Anytime a developer proposes building high density housing, so-called “neighborhood preservationists” show up in force to shout it down citing the existing problems of over-occupancy without the slightest clue that the problems are because of their actions.

Cedar City, despite being smaller and more rural, is not exempt from the fight either. SUU has ballooned to over 10,000 students, roughly 1/3 of the city’s population. There are multiple construction projects underway to try and meet the demand for apartments. One of my friends is looking at moving away not because he doesn’t like the city but because inventory is so tight that non-student renters can’t find anything available. The city recently changed zoning in an area within walking distance of SUU to try and provide more units without significant increases in traffic, but residents were, predictably, furious. How dare anyone build 50 foot buildings within two blocks (not even kidding here) of the university that has existed for well over a century! But that kind of change was predictable and expected given the proximity to campus.

All of this has a common thread: density, as in most new growth is in the form of multi-dwelling units (MDUs) like apartments and condos. And the reason is because cheap land to build thousands of tract homes at a time is almost all developed and the spread of suburbia has largely hit the limits of how far people are willing to drive to work. That was the single greatest contributor to inexpensive single-family housing, having tens of thousands of open acres just waiting for cookie-cutter houses to be plopped on down. When you run out of easy land, the only way to drive costs down is to build up. This isn’t to say that every city should look like Manhattan with 30+ story high rises, but going with even modest 3 to 5 story buildings is going to be a must unless housing costs are going to imitate cities like San Francisco, Boston, and New York that Utahns love to mock.

But land isn’t our only limiting factor. We’re a desert state. That we’ve been able to grow to in excess of 3M people is nothing short of amazing given the scarce water resources. Much of our water is spent on agriculture and landscaping. While the biggest gains in water efficiency still remain to be made in agriculture, we can’t ignore that higher density is also more water-efficient per person. Going from one yard per family to common areas can dramatically reduce what currently accounts for 60% of all residential water usage.

So what can we do?

It’s all about supply and demand. Spreading out employment to suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas will also help spread housing demand to areas with more developable land and greater inexpensive housing inventory. The governor’s office has had a particular focus on rural job growth that can help with this. In urbanized areas where this won’t be an option, it’s time to accept that more dense housing, be it townhomes, apartment complexes, and/or high rise towers, is the only way to avoid Bay Area pricing insanity where even a condemned home will sell for $1.2M. With many cities lacking empty land for such endeavors, this means you’re likely to end up right in the thick of these being built in or near your neighborhood, especially if you’re in an area with higher land values.

Cities and counties can make this a lot easier for existing homeowners. Instead of “just in time” zoning changes to accommodate specific projects, work in advance to update master plans so that residents know well in advance what potential zoning changes could come to a given area. Working with nearby municipalities also ensures that this plan doesn’t end at the city or county borders. Most of the friction from existing residents is because of a mismatch between expectations and proposed changes. The better you plan for those eventual changes, the more likely you are to avoid protracted and nasty fights.

Ultimately, the needs of existing homeowners who want to maintain their property values (which includes their surroundings) and new potential residents who need affordable housing is a tricky balance to strike. But instead of caving to one of the two sides, let’s find that balance and spread the wealth that is living in a state as great as ours.

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