‘Can’t afford to live here’: Utah governor says lack of affordable housing ‘keeps him up the most’

ST. GEORGE — One year ago, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said the concern at the top of his list was a lack of water in the state. 

File photo of the Stone Ridge Townhomes subdivision, Hurricane, Utah, May 24, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Now, it’s a lack of affordable homes.

Responding to a question from St. George News during the Sept. 21 taping of the monthly PBS Utah Governor’s Press Conference program in Salt Lake City, Cox said while the water drought is still an issue despite a year of prolific rainfall, the housing drought might be the more serious short-term problem. 

“Right now, the issue that is my top concern and keeps me up the most at night is the state of housing and especially affordable housing in our state,” Cox said. 

The lack of homes, or even apartments, that people can afford is also cited often by local leaders – from city councils to county commissions – as a cause of their insomnia. The same can be said for their constituents who often come to meetings saying that their salaries aren’t able to pay for many rents and mortgages locally. 

But Cox said the focus shouldn’t be as much on trying to make wages in places like Washington County commensurate with home prices but on reducing the cost of a house.

“I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do more on wages. We have seen the largest wage increase in our state’s history over the last couple of years. People who used to be making minimum wage are making $15 an hour. Fast food restaurants are paying $18-20 an hour,” Cox said. “But it’s just not keeping up and it can’t keep up with the inflationary rates of other things, especially housing. It’s not just a St. George issue, although I’m sure it’s especially acute there.”

Cox noted that house price tags in Utah with an average of $510,173 are among the highest in the nation. According to the National Association of Realtors, Utah is the fifth-most expensive state for median home price behind Washington, Massachusetts, Hawaii and the priciest to the west in California. 

A map showing the median home price per county nationwide as of the end of 2021. Washington County is among the more expensive | Image courtesy of the National Association of Realtors, St. George News | Click to enlarge

But the $510,000 figure for the state seems like a bargain compared with the current median home price in Washington County. At $639,900 on average, homes are more expensive in Washington County than they are in the capital county of Salt Lake ($599,000).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median family income in Washington County is $65,040 per year. Using a Bankrate.com comparison calculator, that family would be able to afford a maximum of $253,000 for a home. 

To afford an average, $639,900 Washington County home, a family would need to be making at least $143,000 per year.

Unlike their neighbors to the south, the $444,900 median price for a home in Iron County might seem more reasonable. But it’s still twice what the average Iron County family making $52,045 per year can afford. 

Whether it’s about increasing wages or reducing home prices, local leaders say the reality is that even if someone can afford a home locally, their child’s teacher, their father’s nurse or the police officer they expect to protect them likely cannot.

During a Santa Clara City Council meeting in April, council member Crista Hinton said there is a shortage of workers in the local service industries because they “can’t afford to live here.”

“We talk about quality of life but not having housing in this price range is already looking at declining our quality of life,” said Hinton, who added she has been told the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins is struggling to stay open because of a lack of employees. 

But Hinton was making the statement in regard to her support of a housing development in Santa Clara that included a denser townhome community that was heavily opposed by a group of residents.

And that leads to a conflict at the heart of increasing the availability of affordable housing – the one between developers who want less red tape and more green lights to build and “NIMBY” — not-in-my-backyard — residents who fear a change to their quality of life. There is open space in Southern Utah to build, but officials concede there is also a deep desire to maintain as much of that open space as possible. 

In a video screenshot, Gov. Spencer Cox is seen during a taping of the PBS Utah “Governor’s Monthly News Conference” program, Salt Lake City, Utah, Sept. 21, 2023 | Photo via video courtesy of PBS Utah, St. George News

“That is the bigger problem,” Cox said. “Everyone knows that we need cheaper housing. We need more density in the right places. We want our kids and grandkids to be able to live here and we want to build more houses. We just don’t want them built where we can see them from our back porch or our front yard, right?”

Cox said there needs to be a balance. He said ultimately that means communities have to be more open to zoning for more people as more density can bring down housing costs. At the same time, this zoning needs to be placed where there is the infrastructure that can handle it.

“I hope we can get that balance right. NIMBYism is always seen as a negative, and it’s not always a negative,” Cox said. “When you approve density in a place where you don’t have infrastructure, that does make life worse for lots of people. It clogs up roads So we have to do this the right way.

“So we’re investing in your community. We’re going to take a little more authority over the land use around that area. That’s the type of balancing that I think is smart, and that helps us overcome the worst parts of NIMBYism and keeping the good parts.”

The need for more density was discussed during a housing town hall in Ivins back in March. But the mayor of Ivins is among local leaders who have taken offense to Cox and the state Legislature taking more authority over residential zoning decisions.  

Especially drawing criticism from Chris Hart is that some of the authority taken away from cities and counties by the new law passed by the state government in March and going into effect in January – HB 406 Land Use, Development, and Management Act Modifications – includes not allowing cities to make rules on design elements of housing developments such as color, style of roof and exterior or fencing.

Hart said while he understands the need for the state to make it easier to approve more density, he doesn’t understand how allowing someone to build a pink house in Ivins does anything to make housing more affordable.

“What offends me even more than anything is that they attached color to the cost of housing,” the Ivins mayor said. “Do you think a can of white paint costs any more than a can of red paint?”

File photo of a zone change notice placed by the city of Ivins in front of seven acres of empty land at the corner of Old Highway 91 and 200 West, Ivins, Utah, Nov. 4, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Hart says he is working with other local leaders to lobby the Legislature to compromise on some loss of local control but still allow cities to determine how homes can look. 

Cox, a former city councilman and mayor himself in his native Fairview, said that he and the state Legislature are trying to take some of the pressure off local leaders by making it less politically harmful if needed housing is added to a city. 

“We’ve seen this over and over again where we’ll have a city council or somebody who does the right thing and approves a development and then there’s a referendum and they lose their seats and their decision gets overturned,” Cox said. “We’re doing a cautious approach but we are changing some laws to make it easier for those approvals to go through and harder for them to be to be overturned.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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