SALT LAKE CITY – The issue of affordable housing promises to be a priority in Utah no matter who wins the race to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert in Tuesday’s general election.
Both gubernatorial candidates and their running mates have proposed varied solutions to that statewide problem.
During a recent virtual forum hosted by the Cache Valley Chamber of Commerce, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson echoed his party’s playbook by advocating for a hike in the state’s minimum wage and more collective bargaining by labor unions as ways to make housing more affordable for Utah workers.
At the same event, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox offered a more nuanced view of ways to create affordable housing.
“There are really three areas that we need to explore,” the Republican candidate explained.
“The first is lowering the cost of construction to make new houses more affordable. Secondly, we need innovation in the way that we finance homes, to allow more people to access capital so that they can get into homes. Finally, we need to address the regulatory piece of the puzzle, because government does increase the cost of homes by placing additional regulations and fees on the construction industry.”
Utah’s affordable housing crisis is not unique. According to an annual report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), basic housing is out of reach financially for most of America’s minimum wage workers.
A recent report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah estimated that Utah’s housing demand exceeds available supply by 55,000 units. The NLIHC’s 2020 report states that shortage means that a Utah worker would need to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment.
Cox believes that education is the solution to the wage issues associated with the affordable housing crisis.
“There are incredible job opportunities out there and we need skilled employees desperately,” the lieutenant governor said. “Not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree to get a high paying job in this state. For too many years, we’ve been forcing our kids into higher education as if there were some sort of stigma attached to attending a tech institution.
“We really need to change that perception and encourage young people to up their job skills.”
In one of many points of agreement between the candidates, Peterson’s running mate Karina Brown of Nibley actually doubles down on Cox’ opinion about the need for revised educational priorities in Utah.
“We do need careers, rather than just jobs … ,” Brown argued. “I agreed with Lt. Gov. Cox about education being one of the keys to this issue. We need to present apprenticeships, trades and technical occupations as honorable options for students as early as junior high and in high school.”
But Brown believes that innovation will also be necessary to address the housing crisis.
“I recent participated in an Ivory Homes webinar about their annual ‘Hack-a-House’ competition with (college) students to innovate solutions to the affordable housing crisis,” Brown said. “Students are encouraged to brainstorm virtually with industry leaders to explore housing affordability ideas to benefit affected populations. I’m impressed with their work.”
State Sen. Deidre Henderson, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, also believes that flexible thinking will play a key role in resolving Utah’s housing crisis.
“I was recently talking to restaurant workers in Moab and they were telling me that they can’t afford to live in the city because housing prices are so high,” Henderson explained. “This is a concern in other areas as well, including Cache Valley.
“Part of (resolving this issue) is working with local governments to get out of the way of market innovation.”
Henderson said her hometown of Spanish Fork recently revised ordinances that had previously blocked the construction of accessory apartments attached to family dwellings throughout most of the city.
“Naturally, it would take a lot of mother-in-law apartments to solve our housing crisis,” she admitted. “But that’s just an example of how flexible thinking can impact this issue.”
Henderson also argued that outmoded expectations about home ownership are helping to make housing too expensive, particularly for young people.
“The younger generation of would-be home owners may not want a single-family home on a quarter-acre lot,” she suggested. “So we do need to think about changing styles of home ownership and the changing demographics of home owners as we move forward on this issue.”