Opinion: Utah housing is at a tipping point. Free-market solutions can save the American dream

June 20, 2024 (Deseret News)

Utah’s affordable housing crisis is a dire threat to the American dream for countless hardworking families in our state. This crisis doesn’t just hurt Utah families — if we don’t fix it soon, it could seriously stunt our state’s population growth and economic potential.

The Beehive State’s recent ranking as the third-least-affordable place to buy a home in the entire country, behind only Hawaii and California, is an alarming indictment of our current policies. Salt Lake City being the 14th-least-affordable metro area nationwide is a slap in the face to Utahns striving for a better life.

Homeownership has always been a cornerstone of the American dream and a critical pathway to building wealth, strengthening communities and creating opportunity for the next generation.

In February, the Utah Foundation released a comprehensive report on homeownership with staggering findings: Each year of homeownership correlates with a $9,500 increase in average household wealth, and owning a home is linked to improved educational outcomes, with significantly higher high school graduation and college completion rates for children raised in owner-occupied homes.

Sticker shock has pushed homeownership out of reach for so many Utahns. The median home price in Utah nearly doubled between 2017 and 2022 alone. And it’s been a growing problem as home prices have increased 90% (adjusted for inflation) over the last 40 years, while household incomes are only 20% higher.

Millennials — the largest generation in the U.S. — have found themselves priced out of the market and fleeing to other states, robbing Utah of its talent, entrepreneurship and future, not to mention tax dollars.

At the heart of Utah’s housing woes lies a severe inventory shortage, despite record numbers of building permits over the last few years. If supply continues to trail demand, prices will continue to soar out of reach for working families.

The leading culprits behind this shortage are heavy-handed government zoning and land use regulations. These burdensome restrictions are an artificial chokehold on our housing supply, driving up costs and slamming the door on affordable housing options. Government regulation accounts for a whopping 24% of the total construction cost of a single-family home and 40% for multi-family housing.

Utahns are clamoring for more attainable housing choices in the communities where they live and work, but out-of-touch regulations like minimum lot size requirements and bans on mixed-use buildings make it nearly impossible to build the diverse housing stock we desperately need.

Last year, the state Legislature passed some important pieces of legislation to help address these issues but didn’t go far enough to reform Utah’s outdated housing regulations, leaving several other good bills without a hearing.

In next year’s session, lawmakers should focus on legalizing “missing middle” housing like townhomes and duplexes, allowing for multifamily and mixed-use buildings in commercial zones, reducing minimum lot sizes and giving landowners across the state the freedom of accessory dwelling units.

Several other states, from California to Montana, have already taken bold action to remove barriers and legalize more affordable housing options. Utah must follow their lead. This is not a partisan issue — it’s about doing what’s right for our citizens.

The status quo of soaring prices and dwindling affordability is unacceptable and unsustainable. Utah is at a tipping point, and we cannot afford to let this crisis continue unchecked.

Let’s unleash the power of the market, get government out of the way and build a future where every Utahn can afford a place to call home. Together, we can reignite the promise of the American dream right here in Utah.

Kevin Greene is the state director for Americans for Prosperity-Utah

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