The population of Utah is expected to double – yes, double – by the year 2040, and the matter of just where to house everyone is high on the state’s to-do list. Blocking the way are longstanding zoning restrictions at the local level across the state, as well as significant geographic constraints and, until recently, a misperception among the general public that denied a need for affordable housing. With the help of Utah REALTORS® over the past two years, public opinion has been swayed, and the state has found a way to incentivize solutions to the growing housing shortage, rather than strong-arming municipalities with mandates in 2019.

As Cate Klundt, Government Affairs Director of the Utah Association of REALTORS®, explains, the first step was joining a broad-based partnership of industry groups, homebuilders, non-profits, and the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute. This group, known as the Utah Housing Gap Coalition, commissioned an academic study detailing the nature of Utah’s demographics and housing needs, and conducted polling and focus groups on consumer attitudes. “The results of these inquiries in the first phase gave us what we needed to help craft effective legislation and formulate informed, targeted education campaigns in the second phase,” says Klundt. Two Issues Mobilization Grants and polling services strengthened the effort from start to finish.

Among the key issues revealed by the research was the prevailing misunderstanding among many Utah residents who rejected the notion of a housing shortage, despite the fact that Utah’s housing prices have increased at a higher rate than those of San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle in the past 20 years. Also significant, notes Klundt, is that the population boom putting pressure on the housing market was shown to be due to in-migration and natural household growth, rather than an influx of ‘outsiders.’ A notable age gap between aspiring home buyers in Utah and those opposing the development of affordable housing units pointed to the established generation being out of touch with the plight of the millennials. “We needed to make it clear to the baby boomers that the people being squeezed out of the housing market are not some nebulous threat, but their own children — and we had the data to prove it,” says Klundt.

The REALTORS® used this data in an internal campaign focused on protecting the American dream of homeownership, a theme that resonated at their REALTOR® Day at the state capitol, where about 400 members met with three-quarters of the legislature. The Utah Housing Gap Coalition directed a public campaign at Utah’s parental generation, with the message, ‘Your grown children want to remain close to home – let’s make this possible for them!’ says Klundt.

Members of the Housing Gap Coalition visited city councils around the state to hear their concerns before approaching the state legislature with an innovative plan: an Affordable Housing Modifications bill motivating municipalities to implement housing reform policies by tying their eligibility for state transportation funding to positive steps toward affordable housing planning and transit-oriented mixed-use development. By allowing local governments to choose from a list of measures including establishing community land trusts, permitting accessory dwelling units, lowering parking requirements, and allowing for higher density residential development in commercial zones, the legislation allows municipalities to retain some local control in solving their share of the state-wide problem. Passage of the bill was a triumph for the Housing Gap Coalition, which will continue its work with a focus on future legislation to meet funding needs.

“I don’t think we’re the only state that has to manage conservative homebuilders and more liberal housing advocates, and we were successful in creating a process that appeased both of those groups as well as local governments and the state legislature,” says Klundt. “Our whole coalition is grateful to the REALTOR® Party for the support that made it possible.”

To learn more about how Utah REALTORS® are working to help municipalities become part of the solution to their own affordable housing challenges, contact Government Affairs Director Cate Klundt at 702-767-3994.