Op-ed: Utah’s economy is roaring, but how’s quality of life?

Written by: Peter Reichard

As the pandemic began, we predicted that Utah would emerge economically stronger than the rest of the nation. That’s what happened. On multiple measures, Utah tracks among the nation’s tippy-top performers.

Take, for instance, the GDP growth from 2019 through 2021, the unemployment rate, population growth or the poverty rate. The Beehive State also leads the nation on multiple measures of community and family life, along with social mobility. The Utah economy has been roaring, fortified by a strong social fabric.

But this success comes with costs. That’s among the findings of the Utah Foundation’s 2022 Community Quality of Life Index. The report is based on a survey where Utahns rate their communities on a series of 20 factors. Since 2011, the Utah Foundation has measured community quality of life five times.

This year is the clear low mark. In 2022, the Community Quality of Life Index stands at 64 out of a possible 100 points, down from 73 in 2013. Even as Utah has been riding high economically, its community quality of life has dropped off significantly.

Two factors bear most of the blame for the downturn. Housing affordability and other costs of living accounted for nearly two-thirds of the overall decrease in community quality of life from 2018 to 2022. Eleven other factors also decreased during the same time period. The availability of good jobs is the only factor on Utah Foundation’s Community Quality of Life Index that has trended upward during the past decade.

Affordable housing by far has the lowest performance rating in the index. This should come as no surprise. The cost of housing in Utah went through the roof from late 2020 to late 2021 – with a year-over-year appreciation of nearly one-third. From 2010 to 2021, an inflation-adjusted mortgage payment with 10% down on a median-priced Utah home increased by $469, from $1,131 to $1,600.

Expanding homeownership opportunities is an important component to long-term affordability. In a 2018 report, the Utah Foundation found that, when adjusting for inflation, Utah homeowners’ monthly costs had decreased by 10% during the previous 10 years, while renters’ costs had increased by 14%. And those increases just keep going. For example, Davis County and Utah County rents increased more than 50% from January 2019 to July 2021.

Furthermore, homeownership is correlated with wealth. The median Utah homeowner’s net worth is $255,000, while the median renter net worth is $6,300. Unfortunately, in 2020, the share of renters priced out of Utah’s median-priced home jumped to 73%, from 63% the year before.

In other words, the American Dream is rapidly becoming unaffordable for a growing swath of Utahns.

When we asked Utahns in 2022 what could improve quality of life, more than one-third suggested that their communities need more housing that is affordable. But pulling that off in a manner that is acceptable to neighbors is the trick. During the past year, a series of Utah Foundation reports has offered local governments ways to open up the playbook using so-called “middle housing.” This is housing that occupies the “middle” ground between large-lot, single-family homes and large apartment complexes. It offers the potential to increase the supply of housing, but at a scale that is less objectionable to most neighbors and with strong design quality that can improve upon neighborhoods.

Our 2022 Quality of Life analysis revealed four areas for policymakers to target in order to buck the downward trend in quality of life. As you might expect, the first of these is promoting quality affordable housing and finding other ways to reduce the cost of living. Another policy area, seen in previous surveys, is to build on policies and programs aimed at improving air quality.

The two remaining policy areas pertain to how we grow. First, there is a need to invest in the built environment and enhance land use policies to promote attractive, high-quality developments and pedestrian-friendly streets with key amenities. Second, there is a need to improve transportation infrastructure.

Rapid growth is challenging this state and testing Utahns’ patience. But it also offers a golden opportunity to advance in a manner that provides expanded housing opportunities, better air quality and an appealing built environment. Policymakers should seize the moment.


This op-ed was originally published in the Salt Lake Tribune.

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