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South Salt Lake Journal

Utah Housing Gap Coalition raising awareness about housing affordability

Feb 21, 2019 12:57PM ● By Justin Adams

The Utah Housing Gap Coalition is trying to find solutions for the state’s housing crisis, but it goes beyond just high-density developments like Daybreak, seen here. (Justin Adams/City Journals)

By Justin Adams | [email protected]

One of the hottest topics in Utah and this year’s legislative session is that of growth. Utah is expected to double its population by 2050 and the question is: where are all those people going to live? That’s the question the Housing Gap Coalition is trying to answer.

The coalition, which was formed last year by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, wants residents, government leaders and developers to start thinking now about how to handle Utah’s population growth. 

“We’re trying to get ahead of it,” said Abby Osborne, the vice president of public policy and government relations for the chamber of commerce. 

If Utah kicks the can down the road, she said, the state may be forced to take more radical approaches to accommodating rapid growth — something she sees happening across the country.

Just last year, Minneapolis voted to abolish its single-family residential zone, which would “allow residential structures with up to three dwelling units — like duplexes and triplexes — in every neighborhood,” according to the New York Times.  

Or consider the case of California, where the state government is suing a city government for “failing to allow enough new homebuilding to accommodate a growing population,” according to the LA Times. 

Instead, the coalition is advocating for a more balanced approach to improving housing affordability. 

Local housing policies

In Utah, municipal governments control what types of buildings are built and where. While some cities may be open to increasing the overall supply of homes by allowing high-density projects within their boundaries, many other cities are not. 

Last year, the coalition leadership visited the city council meetings of cities along the Wasatch Front, both educating and getting feedback about the issue.

“It was fairly successful. We got pretty good reception from most of the cities,” said Osborne. 

Now with the Utah state legislative session underway, the coalition has moved its focus to Capitol Hill. 

On Feb. 8, a group of about 70 coalition members gathered at the capitol to lobby their senators to support a series of bills aimed at improving housing affordability. 

One such bill is SB 34, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi. The bill (whose fate wasn’t known at the time of deadline for this article) would require municipal governments to adopt certain policies designed to increase housing affordability in order to be eligible to receive money from the state’s Transportation Investment Fund. The bill would also appropriate $20 million to the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund.

One of the coalition members who participated in the lobbying effort was Chris Sloan, a past president of the Utah Association of Realtors and a former chairman of the Tooele County Chamber of Commerce. He said housing affordability is a “sizable problem that affects all of us.”

Education campaign

While getting elected officials on board with combatting the housing gap is important for the coalition, getting the public on board is perhaps even more important.

Draper Mayor Troy Walker called high-density development a “four-letter word” when the coalition visited the Draper City Council. 

There are cases up and down the Wasatch Front of mayors and city councilors facing the wrath of their constituents for having approved a high-density development. From the Olympia Hills development in the southwest portion of the valley that was halted by then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams because of fierce community backlash, to the Holladay Quarter project that fell apart after the Utah Supreme Court ruled in favor of community organizers that opposed it, the biggest obstacle to increasing the housing supply is most often residents themselves.

To change public perception about the issue, the coalition has launched a public education campaign consisting of billboards, radio ads, social media posts and appearances on local network morning shows. 

Osborne said she’s already seen changes in certain communities’ perception of high-density development. 

“We’re getting people thinking a little differently than they were before. And that’s all we can really do,” she said. 

Construction labor force

Another impediment to increasing the housing supply is that construction companies simply can’t keep up with the demand because of a lack of skilled workers in the construction industry. 

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, who represents parts of Salt Lake and Tooele County, said that encouraging more young people to enter trade professions out of high school is the most important thing that can be done to improve housing affordability. 

“The AFL-CIO is the answer to the construction and trades labor shortage,” he said. “Republicans are traditionally against unions, but they really have some great apprenticeship programs. You get pay and benefits from day one, and four years later you’ll have the skills you need to be a freelance electrician, make $80,000 a year and have no college debt.”

The Utah AFL-CIO website lists a number of apprenticeship programs in trades such as roofing, plumbing, masonry and cement and electrical work.

Part of the coalition’s education campaign includes letting soon-to-be high school graduates know that they can enroll in such apprenticeship programs as an alternative to college. After a recent event in the Ogden School District, Osborne said about 500 students expressed interest in the idea. 

Through these efforts, the Housing Gap Coalition is hopeful that Utah can avoid the drastic moves taken by the likes of California and Minneapolis.

“There’s many things causing the problem, so there’s a lot of different approaches to it,” said Osborne.