Herald editorial: The solution to Utah County’s housing problem can shift with two key changes

New housing is pictured Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Vineyard. As the population grows faster and faster in Utah County, many officials are struggling to keep up with the housing demand. DOMINIC VALENTE, Daily Herald

It seems no matter the demographic, the problem of finding housing is an issue that can unite various groups in Utah County: middle-aged families, employed single adults, low-income residents, students, the homeless and those aging and needing different accommodations.

As housing costs in the area jump at disproportionate rates compared to average wages and salaries, it impacts whole communities. For those populations in search of the elusive concept of affordable housing, it is a mad, hungry chase often ending in whatever one can get their hands on.

And this problem is only beginning. With growth projections from the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget long suggesting Utah County’s population will reach 1,398,074 by 2060, the landscape of the area is still in the beginning stages of a major transformation.

To put that growth in perspective — by 2060, Utah County’s population will be larger than Salt Lake County’s population in 2010. Eight out of the 10 cities the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development lists as the state’s fastest growing cities are located in Utah County.

So whether it is wanted or not, we are all about to get more neighbors. It is not a force that can be stopped.

As we’ve spent the last week reporting on Utah County’s housing dilemma, a few facts and solutions clearly rose to our attention surrounding this very complicated issue.

First, before any changes and efforts can be made in local government (or developers) there must be a change in community mindset. The change is this: strategically planned high-density housing will become necessary, and it is not the enemy. Likewise, renters are not the enemy of our communities. Single professionals living here, sharing their education and skills with our businesses, are an asset, not a liability, to our neighborhoods. It will be impossible to plan strong communities with an influx of 881,510 residents without accepting that it must comprise housing beyond large, five- to six-bedroom single-family homes.

According to Provo’s moderate income housing plan, one of the largest housing demands in the city is for unmarried graduate students and working professionals, and yet many residents in the city would seek to eliminate or further restrict the new housing developments accommodating this demographic as a “solution.” Unfortunately, their misguided notions only perpetuate the problem and prevent the preservation of current moderate income, single-family housing inventory in the affected neighborhoods.

Second, cities can’t control the housing market, but they can control zoning, which dictates which housing types and densities can be built in each district of the city. City and county leaders — from Saratoga Springs to Spanish Fork — must place greater prioritization on accommodating all demographics within a community. As it stands, many cities are failing in this area.

Simply putting a moratorium on housing developments that councils find lesser than will not work in the face of the flood of more than a half million new residents. Kirby Snideman, a long-range planner for Orem, put it plainly.

“If you stop adding housing, you will destroy your older single-family neighborhoods,” Snideman said. “Because of all the renter demand, it doesn’t disappear, it goes somewhere.”

In our reporting, we found the 2015 community assessment, prepared by the United Way of Utah County, detailing that 43 percent of Utah County households make under $40,000 and 27 percent of Utah County households make less than the annual income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market value.

While developers are looking for the biggest bang for their buck, cities are forgetting that when they lure new retail, businesses and medical facilities that a range of employees are brought here, too. The valley is not made up solely of programmers, professors, tech vice presidents, doctors and managers.

Finding affordable housing in today’s market is a struggle for all in search of it. Without a change in outlook and governance, Utah County will drive these valuable populations to its fringes.

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