Planning is key: St. George City officials contend with rising house prices

ST. GEORGE — St. George News began this series with the question: What does the current housing market mean for those who were born here and wish to buy a home?

The skeleton of a new building at Desert Color, St. George, Utah, May 25, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

Alaan Uribe, a 25-year-old man who lives in Hurricane, offered his take on the situation.

“I grew up in Hurricane,” Uribe told St. George News. “I recently got a good paying job, and I’m thinking about proposing to my girlfriend … so I started looking for a house.”

Uribe became discouraged as he saw the prices in a nearby development shoot up from $190,000 to $300,000. Though he’d made a career change and was earning more money, Uribe said he was priced out of the market.

Which is ironic, because Uribe’s parents, who emigrated to California decades before settling in Hurricane, have worked their way up from renting apartments to owning multiple properties in the area. Now their son can’t afford to live there.

File photo of (L-R): Councilman Jimmie Hughes and Jackie Comeau, a scouter with 38 years of service, in St. George City Hall March 18, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“I can’t afford a $300,000 ‘starter’ house,” he said. “I remember when $1,200 dollars was a mortgage. It barely covers monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment up the street from where I live now.”

While there are many factors driving home prices up – skyrocketing material prices coupled with shortages, a dearth of skilled laborers and out-of-state transplants making cash offers above asking prices – members of the St. George City Council are wrestling with potential solutions.

Councilman Jimmie Hughes, who was born and raised in St. George, returned to St. George after working for 12 years as a real estate appraiser in California and then Salt Lake City.

“I experienced a couple of recessions during that time,” Hughes told St. George News. “The first in California in 1993. People were desperate to get their money out of homes. Then again with the Great Recession.”

When Hughes returned to St. George, housing was still affordable. Today, Hughes, who was appointed to the St. George Housing Authority by then-mayor Dan McArthur, said the market has gone crazy.

“My daughter’s getting married in two weeks,” Hughes said. “There aren’t many options, so they may wind up living in our basement. I used to pay $750 for a house in Salt Lake City. I don’t even know what $1,100 will afford today in St. George.”

File photo of Vardell Curtis being sworn in at City Hall, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

Councilman Vardell Curtis is also in the real estate business. Curtis has been CEO of the Washington County Board of Realtors since 1996.

“To give you an idea of what supply and demand looks like,” Curtis told St. George News, “we currently have 2,200 members operating at different levels of membership. That’s 2,200 agents for 400 houses.”

Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin told St. George News that she has thought long and hard about these issues and what the city needs.

“It feels like we’re moving at a really high speed,” Larkin said. “Between the booming economy and the rapidly growing population, I wonder if we can keep up.”

While each member of the council said they have a limited capacity to deal directly with these challenges, they all agreed that they could do more to facilitate as the community finds its way.

“It’s vitally important that we develop responsibly,” Curtis said. “I think all of our decisions have to consider quality of life concerns first.”

Curtis said that increased density buildings will become necessary. As a former member of the city Planning Commission, Curtis said that the people who live in established neighborhoods push against high density.

“It’s not what they signed up for,” he said. “But if we can get developers to work high-density units into their master plans, we all stand to benefit from it.”

Curtis suggested that the city could do more to ease zoning regulations, so that more homes could be built on less land, as well as expediting application processes.

“Otherwise, we can’t keep up with the growth,” Curtis said.

L-R: Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin sits with Tiffany Mitchell and Mayor Michele Randall at 2450 East Park in St. George, Utah, May 13, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

Larkin, inspired by the 10-minute neighborhood approach, said that she hopes to see a combination of increased density, which includes housing, commercial and recreational destinations within walking distance of any home in a given neighborhood.

“This will help bring prices down,” Larkin said, “while also ensuring that we’re taking care of traffic control and air quality, too. We’d also like to see some of those apartments offered below market value.”

Larkin said that’s tricky, but doable.

“What do we need to do to help builders hold rates for 10 to 20 years?” she asked. “What kinds of grants do we need to get?”

“Everybody will be hurting in the future, if we don’t give a little now,” she added.

Hughes has heard the argument that St. George should stop new development all together, he said, but he doesn’t think it’s a viable solution.

“Every time I hear that, I ask, ‘What does that look like?'” Hughes said. “Are we supposed to put people’s names in a hat?”

Hughes said that when he was growing up here, there were 7,500 residents.

“It was the perfect size,” he said. “But that’s long gone. Now, the key is to grow the way we want to grow. We want to keep our community values and spirit.”

Which, Larkin said, may lie in returning to the past.

“When the pioneers settled St. George,” she said, “they would build their apartments on top of the mercantile. They didn’t take out loans, so they literally built brick by brick. Neighborhoods grew up around these community centers. People walked everywhere. There was no commute.”

Ultimately, it must be a community effort, Larkin said.

“We have to avoid thinking that everybody else is the problem,” she said. “We all have to work together to solve these problems.”

Hughes said though growth will continue, there will be a cap.

“Between land and water, we have limits,” he said. “We’re surrounded by BLM land, so we can’t expand forever. And we don’t have the water to support endless growth.”

Talk about the future is important, but what about the present?

“It’s depressing to think about young people who are trying to get established today,” Hughes said.

As for Uribe, he said he’s considering following his brothers and cousins to other states, where affordable and attainable housing is more plentiful.

“I just don’t understand how we’re going to compete with out-of-state buyers with cash in hand,” he said. “But then, I’ve had friends move to places like Portland. They always come back, saying, ‘It costs too much to live there.'”

“When they get here, they find that the prices almost just as high,” he added. “It’s crazy.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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