On April 10, residents in the Brigham Apartments in Provo were given a 30-day notice to vacate the property for new owners to complete renovations.
The residents of the Section 8 housing complex are all low-income, and with rents and property values both rising steadily and only a 3.5 percent vacancy rate in the county, finding affordable housing can be tough.
Tambra Mills, who lived in the Brigham Apartments for six years with the help of Section 8 housing vouchers, said she will now be transitioning into assisted living. But even with financial assistance from her daughter, the $800 a month it takes to live in her new home is a huge hurdle for someone like Mills, whose only income comes from disability and Social Security checks.
Another Brigham Apartments resident, Danny, said he’s lucky because until he can find somewhere he can afford to live, he has the option of living with his parents or making other temporary arrangements.
“I’m more concerned with people with families and that, because I can just go camping a little while if need be,” said Danny, who asked that his last name not be used.
Mills and Danny are not alone. Rental and housing prices are going up across the board, causing difficulty for many, particularly those in lower income brackets.
There are three ways to find housing, said James Wood, senior fellow at the Kem C. Gardener Policy Institute. You can rent, you can buy an existing home or you can buy a new home.
“All three of those markets are under stress,” Wood said.
Home values on the rise
The housing market is a classic case of supply and demand. But even though the supply of homes and apartments in Utah County is rising, it still isn’t fast enough to meet the demand.
“Because we have such a strong economy here in Utah County, there’s a lot of demand,” said Aaron Drussel, president of the Utah Central Association of Realtors. “You have a lot of people that have moved here, a lot of companies that are growing and there’s a huge influx of both people relocating and also people graduating schools here and starting families and starting their professional careers.”
Utah County’s home prices have been on a steady uptick since 2012, when home values bottomed out after the housing bubble burst in 2008. The average Utah County home value in 2012 was approximately $291,000. In 2016, that average value had risen to $366,000, according to data from the Utah County Assessor’s Office.
The median sales price of homes sold in Utah County in February 2017 was nearly $10,000 higher than the median sales price of homes sold in Utah County in February 2016, according to information from the Utah Association of Realtors.
Despite the fact that more than 2,600 residential housing units were added in Utah County in 2016, prices and home values continue to rise.
Building new housing
Real estate agents have watched the inventory of available homes on the market go down, while the average sale price has gone up, Drussel said.
“Home builders are having a tough time right now building as many homes as we need,” Wood said. “They give three reasons for that: labor and supply, land costs and local municipal regulations.”
Increasing land prices have caused an uptick in higher-density housing. In 2010, Utah County only issued 245 multi-family/condo building permits. In 2015, that number had risen to 1,108.
“The (percentage) of building permits for multi-family buildings was increasing much faster than just your typical residential home,” said Utah County Assessor Kris Poulson. “As land gets more and more expensive, you’ve got to go multi-family just to make it worth your investment.”
That’s part of the reason starter homes — which Wood said are anything below $250,000 — are just not lucrative for home builders to invest in.
“They just can’t do it, what with having to pay for land and construction costs,” Wood said.
Some contractors are purposely building conservatively, Poulson said, because they don’t want to take the risk of overbuilding should the housing market crash again like it did in 2008.
“If it does burst again, they’re stuck and they’ll go into bankruptcy again,” Poulson said.
Builders have held off on building as much as they can for several years, causing a pent-up demand for homes now that interest rates for buying are low, Drussel said. Many sub-contractors left the industry during the recession.
“There wasn’t enough work, they went to other industries, and they haven’t gone back into those industries,” Drussel said. “And we haven’t really trained up enough workers in certain instances to keep up with the demand on that. That’s why you see prices increase.”
In addition, the labor and supplies will be stretched thin over the next few years, Wood said. A nearly $3 billion project at Salt Lake International Airport, a $1 billion bond approved by the Utah Legislature for road projects and a new Utah State Prison construction are all going to be competing over the next few years for labor and supplies.
“Then you get to the housing market which is down the food chain,” Wood said. “No way you can escape rising costs in construction and labor. I don’t see anything short of a recession … to relieve the cost side.”
Interest rates are another factor in the competitive housing market right now.
“You get people who are worried (about interest rates going up) and they want to take advantage of the rates while you can still get something in the 3 percent range,” Drussel said.
As housing costs continue to increase, it puts more of a burden on people, especially those with low incomes, who are more likely to rent than buy.
More than 87 percent of Utah County households that make less than $19,150 per year are paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, while 80 percent of renters with incomes between $19,150 and $31,900 are doing the same, according to Utah’s 2016 Affordable Housing Assessment and Plan, which analyzed incomes and housing costs between 2009 and 2013.
Households are considered cost-burdened if more than 30 percent of the combined household income is spent toward rent and utilities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Households that spend more than 50 percent of total income on housing and utilities are considered severely cost-burdened.
In Utah County, 48 percent of households that make between $31,900 and $51,050 are cost-burdened, while only 8 percent of households that make more than $51,050 are cost-burdened, the plan said.
The higher housing and rental prices go, the more demand there is for services like vouchers and affordable housing such as is provided through the Utah County Housing Authority. UCHA has 178 apartments it rents out to those who qualify, and assists 1,059 more households via Section 8 vouchers.
But for those who need assistance the wait is long.
“We have a waiting list of over 2,000 right now,” said Lynell Smith, director of the Utah County Housing Authority. “It’s about a two-year wait, which is so unfortunate. The people need help now, not in two years.”
But because funding is limited, the UCHA cannot offer a voucher to anyone until someone else goes off the program.
Effects of the shortage
Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee, who also sits on the Utah County Housing Authority Board, has said Utah County’s housing is in a crisis stage. It’s not uncommon to hear about families doubling up in homes, or students living in campers in order to afford the cost of living.
“That’s why I think that low-income housing is in a crisis stage,” Lee said. “Because it’s not just the homeless population, but we’re also seeing those who are really trying to be as productive as possible in society and go forward, and they don’t know where to go, they don’t know what to do.
“They still want to get an education, they still want to work, but they’re finding a problem in finding homes.”
Much of that is exacerbated by the not-in-my-backyard mentality, Lee said. People worry that if their neighbor is renting out their basement, or an apartment complex is put in next door, issues like parking and not knowing who your neighbors are will skyrocket.
“So because we have that cutoff where we say, we’re not going to allow you to rent out your basement accessory apartments, we create our own low-income housing dilemmas,” Lee said.
The current market isn’t necessarily prohibitive to people buying homes, Drussel said. But it has shifted what kinds of homes people are building and where people can buy them.
The further west or south you go in the county — think Saratoga Springs or Santaquin — the more affordable the houses get, Drussel said.
“There are some (housing) projects that have opened up in Santaquin and sold out in a matter of days,” Drussel said. “In the past, you had to do a ton of marketing to get people to even consider (Santaquin) … it’s just getting the perception of making people realize it’s not that far.”
With the exception of availability for extremely low-income people, Wood stopped short of saying the housing situation is in crisis. But he said it does create an unfortunate situation for millennials.
“They are postponing home buying out of economic necessity,” Wood said. “But for most households, the only wealth they have when they are 60 to 65 is what they have in their house.”
What can be done?
Smith said she would like to see more dollars put aside to build affordable housing in Utah County, or at least see local governments incentivize developers to include affordable housing units in each new development in the city.
“If every development did that, it might not solve the problem but it would add to the drops in the bucket,” Smith said.
Lee said he doesn’t know exactly what the answer is, but said he would like to see local government entities do some experimenting. He said multiple people have approached him about “tiny homes” and he thinks it’s at least interesting enough to look into.
Lee sees his role as trying to facilitate the conversation, acknowledge the conflict exists, then try to take down some of the political barriers that present themselves in the form of regulations.
“It’s not like the government can go in and build them all,” Lee said. “I don’t think that’s the proper role for it. But there’s companies that are saying, hey, give us a chance, we have a manufacturer that manufactures them. Why not give them a chance and see?”
For instance, zoning regulations can be changed to make way for nontraditional types of housing, Lee said.
“Some will say, well you have to be on a quarter of an acre,” Lee said. “Well, what if we went to an eighth of an acre? That’s a regulation we would have to shift.”