Gov. Cox ‘Giddy’ at Housing Bills Passed This Session

March 01, 2024 (Deseret News)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said first-of-its-kind legislation will help pull the state from a spiraling housing crisis and will set a pattern for the rest of the nation.

“This is the biggest housing package in the United States right now,” Cox told the Deseret News during an interview on Friday. “This is it. This could be a model for other states.”

The bill referenced by Cox — which passed just days before the end of the 2024 legislative session — would authorize the state treasurer’s office to make roughly $300 million in public investment funds available for three years to enable local banks and credit unions to offer low-interest loans for developers building affordable homes.

“That’s why it’s so brilliant,” Cox said.

In December, Cox unveiled his Utah First Homes program, calling on state lawmakers to allocate $150 million to five investment areas, including an additional $50 million for 2023′s First-time Homebuyers Assistance Program and $75 million for the state infrastructure bank to provide incentives for 35,000 starter homes by 2028.

But the governor’s proposals were quickly shot down by legislative leadership, who said those funds would never materialize since they had already been earmarked for transportation spending the year before and since legislators were working within tight budget constraints after projections revealed lower revenue growth compared to previous years.

Cox said this realization forced him, and his new senior adviser for housing strategy and innovation, Steve Waldrip, to go back to the drawing board. The result was HB572, sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, which functions as an alternative — and, Cox said, superior — means of incentivizing an increased supply of homes below $450,000.

“I want to be very clear on this, this has far exceeded my expectations,” Cox said. “What we did this session far exceeded what I proposed in December.”

The bill, which passed on Wednesday, will only provide financial support for projects where at least 60% of the units cost less than $450,000. The units’ house deeds must also include a 5-year restriction requiring owner occupancy and prospective buyers must be informed about the First-time Homebuyers Assistance Program.

According to the sponsors of the bill, it aims to incentivize the construction of 10,000 new homes to meet the state’s 37,000-unit shortfall. The bill will require $18 million in one-time appropriations to ensure the public treasurers investment fund receives the same return it would have received without the new housing program. All loans must be paid back to the state before the program’s sunset date on June 30, 2027.

“I could not be more excited about this. I’m just giddy,” Cox said.

This legislation is just one of the bills that emerged from months of conversation between stakeholders convened by the governor’s commission on housing affordability.

Cox called this year’s suite of bills a “game changer.”

“We have not been building this stuff in our state for 15 to 20 years. And now we’re going to be building it again. And I am so excited and optimistic to talk about this. I just want to shout it from the rooftops,” Cox said.

Four major housing bills received final approval this week:

  • SB268, First Home Investment Zone Act, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, allows cities to create two new kinds of zoning designations in their boundaries to help lower and middle income residents afford to buy a home. These specialized zones will utilize tax increment financing to allow city governments to “capture” revenue from increased property values within an area and direct it toward lowering the cost of land, infrastructure and the home itself. This type of public investment will be contingent on the zone only allowing projects where 50% of the homes are deed-restricted to remain owner occupied for 25 years.
  • SB168, Affordable Building Amendments, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, provides a definition of modular housing, a technology that allows single-family and multifamily residential units to be prefabricated in different segments and then assembled at the home site. The bill outlines a statewide code for modular building units so that cities can more easily accommodate the new home type in their zoning laws. The bill also includes revisions to last year’s first-time homebuyer program that adjust the maximum price cap of eligible homes based on dwelling unit type and location within the state. Finally, the bill allows cities to “upzone” areas for single-family, owner-occupied homes on six to eight acres and use the funds generated from increased property taxes to buy down the cost of infrastructure.
  • HB476, Municipal Land Use Regulation Modifications, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Whyte, R-Mapleton, modifies building regulations to create certainty for cities and builders in the planning process, reduces ambiguity in code, and provides efficiency-optimizing measures for builders.
  • HB465, Housing Affordability Revisions, also sponsored by Whyte, gives city redevelopment agencies the ability to help construct homes at 120% of area median income to ensure these funds are used to increase the supply of owner-occupied homes, not just rental units. The bill also encourages state land authorities, including the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority and the Utah Inland Port Authority, to make increasing affordable housing part of their missions.

“When I look at this year’s bills, more than any other bills before this year, they were really focused on affordable homeownership and infrastructure funding and also really focused on collaboration and partnership between all the stakeholders in this space,” said Cameron Diehl, the executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, in an interview with the Deseret News.

House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said this year’s zoning reforms, and unique funding mechanisms for affordable home construction, respect cities’ autonomy as partners but also place trust in them to act.

“We look to them to make sure that they step up and implement some of these policies. It will be up to them to do that. But now they will have more tools in their toolboxes to accomplish the needs of the state,” Schultz said Friday.

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