It’s not that I have anything against cable cars, picturesque piers or the ‘49ers. We’ll never get those things in Northern Utah, anyway. It’s the home prices. You don’t have to listen too hard to hear the clang, clang of them chugging relentlessly uphill.
But, to beat the cable car metaphor to death, we’re not keeping up with all the people who want to get onboard. The result of this could be disastrous.
But while anyone living in the Bay Area still would consider the Wasatch Front a far cheaper alternative, most of the rest of the nation is a far better bargain. Regardless of how Utah cities are trying to address the problem, the housing market here keeps climbing.
For the record, as 2020 comes to a close, Salt Lake County homes still cost about $1 million less than those in San Francisco. Zillow reports a median-priced San Francisco home costs $1,403,197. In Salt Lake County it’s $425,122.
But here’s an important difference: In San Francisco, that price dropped in 2020, although by a scant 0.3%. In Salt Lake County it rose by 10%, and Zillow predicts another 8.4% in 2021.
I should note that last year Zillow missed badly by predicting only a modest 4.2% rise in 2020. But it was natural to think things would slow down after prices rose 11.1% in 2019.
By now it should be clear. Neither pandemic, nor drought nor 5.7 earthquake will keep Utah from growing. But we’re not building fast enough to accommodate everyone.
A new research study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Salt Lake Chamber puts this in perspective. Over the last 11 years, Utah households have increased by 220,720, while dwelling units, or places to live, have increased by only 185,334. You don’t have to be a math major to calculate that is a deficit of 35,386, or 16% less than what is needed.
When supply falls below demand, prices go up. Rents are rising by 5% to 7% across the Wasatch Front, despite what the study says is record apartment construction.
But the most important question is, where are those 35,386 families sleeping? The answers probably vary. Some may be doubling up with family or friends. Some may be homeless. Many are likely living in basement apartments or other units that never got approval from any city planning department. Where demand exists, markets find a way. But those ways aren’t always best for renters,
A year ago, I quoted two experts at the American Enterprise Institute who said local governments should abolish single family zoning and instead allow more “light touch density” housing, defined as buildings housing two to four families each. The Gardner Policy Institute study mentions zoning as a solution, too, advocating for more high-density housing and allowing more basement apartments.
Some cities, such as Minneapolis, have abolished single-family zones all together and are letting apartments go up even in single-family subdivisions. That’s a more radical solution whose main value may be to increase attendance at City Council meetings.
As the Gardnew study notes, zoning laws didn’t exist until Los Angeles first adopted them in 1908. Utah came along in 1925. Given the current libertarian streak that exists in much of the West, I’ve wondered whether today’s politicians would have had the guts to establish them if those people hadn’t already done so.
Of course, zoning laws do good things, such as keeping bars from popping up next to high schools or strip clubs from building next to a church.
Unfortunately, if they’re too restrictive, they can put the Wasatch Front on a path to becoming an inland San Francisco. The study says limited housing choices harm children, affecting “their schools, social environment, health, and long-term economic opportunities.”
Zoning isn’t the only way to slow down this cable car. But it’s a big one. Given what’s at stake, Utah’s cities should use it, and anything else they can find, to keep a booming economy from turning into a housing nightmare.