Local legislative candidates debate affordable housing

Both incumbents and challengers in local legislative races agreed that solutions to Cache Valley's affordable housing problem must be found at local level.

LOGAN – The candidates for the Republican nomination in two local legislative races have varying suggestions for solutions to Cache Valley’s dearth of affordable housing. But more government spending isn’t one of them.

“When the government tries to solve a problem just by injecting money into it, that usually just makes everything more expensive,” said Mike Petersen of North Logan. Petersen is running for the GOP nomination in the 3rd House District, challenging incumbent Utah Rep. Val Potter. “Redistributing each other’s wealth never solves anything. We need to let the housing market correct itself.”

During a recent Meet the Candidates forum sponsored by the Cache Chamber of Commerce, Potter agreed that the affordable housing problem in Cache Valley is one of supply and demand.

“We have a limited amount of land and a lot of people seeking homes, both newcomers and our own kids,” Potter observed. “So we need to ensure that we have housing that’s affordable while still supporting a good quality of life.”

The shortage of affordable housing is by no means limited to Cache Valley. The Utah League of Cities and Towns reports that the last economic recession starting in 2008 all but stopped statewide housing construction. While consumer demand has since rebounded, there is still a drastic shortfall in housing construction.

The affordable housing issue is complicated by the fact that Utah is the third fastest growing state in the nation. The price of housing in Utah has also been driven up by sharp increases in the cost of land, labor, materials and financing.

Potter said Utah has recently taken some pro-active steps toward addressing the supply side of the thorny housing issue.

In 2019, the Utah Legislature passed Senate Bill 34, which urged municipalities facing a shortage of affordable housing to adopt at least three policies from a menu of popular housing reforms. Those options included starting a community land trust, preserving existing affordable housing, permitting accessory dwelling units, reducing lot sizes and lowering parking requirements, among others.

“We didn’t mandate anything,” said Potter, who was the House floor sponsor of SB34. “We encouraged (cities and counties) to explore all possible options for rezoning to allow alternative types of housing.”

As something of an appropriations expert in the Senate, incumbent Sen. Lyle Hillyard takes a very dollars-and-cents approach to the issue of affordable housing.

“I have a hard time taking state money and sending it into programs that just give people housing,” Hillyard explained. “I’m not sure that’s the best use of state tax dollars, especially under the Utah Constitution which limits us to only spending general funds for that purpose … Even if we can find general fund money for that purpose, we still have to find a way to ensure that funds used for that purpose are a wise investment rather than just giving money away.”

Hillyard’s rival for the GOP nomination in the Senate 25th District race is Chris Wilson of Logan. He suggests that local leaders need to address the demand side of the affordable housing equation by boosting Cache Valley wages.

“Cache Valley’s median income is $13,000 lower than the state average …” Wilson argued. “We need to make sure that we increase local wages by encouraging industries that offer higher wages to move to the valley. That will help to make the housing that we have here more affordable.”

But Petersen believes that changing a current educational trend could also positively impact both supply and demand.

“We tend to want to send every child in Utah off to a university for a degree,” Petersen said. “But we don’t have enough skilled craftsmen to build homes, install plumbing and make electrical connections. So we need more folks to go into those skilled trades, because more workers in those fields will mean more homes, which will reduce costs.”

But both incumbents and challengers agreed that the best solution to the affordable housing problem must come from local residents and their leaders.

“We do need to provide some government oversight and some assistance (from state level) whenever possible,” Potter said. “But I said oversight, not control. By that, I mean giving some direction to cities and counties, while still preserving local control of this issue.”

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