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Why the Debate Over Housing Density Exists

Access to affordable housing has been a topic of debate for many years. It is not unique to this time in history or this particular election cycle. Strangely enough, politicians debate affordable housing from sunup to sundown yet never actually do anything about it. But truth be told, what can they do?

Take the current debate about housing density, for example. States like Oregon and Utah have passed legislation in recent years designed to increase the number of available housing units by giving builders the green light to construct multifamily dwellings. In some cities, the rule changes had been accompanied by restrictions on the size of new single-family homes.

This debate exists because of the lingering question of coercion versus market freedom. People on one side of the debate are convinced that Washington and state governments are trying to coerce local communities to embrace high density housing while those on the other side say the goal is simply to end discriminatory housing.

The End of the Suburbs

Earlier in 2020 President Trump rescinded an Obama-era rule that directed states to come up with policies to end housing discrimination. The rule did not stipulate specific ways in which states were supposed to fulfill their obligations. However, opponents of the rule are convinced that, had it been left intact, it would have led to the end of the suburbs.

No one knows if that’s true. In fact, there is no way to prove it one way or the other. You would only know by leaving the rule intact and letting nature take its course. But then again, what if states and local municipalities seized on the rule in an attempt to coerce their communities to accept high density housing?

The implications of the rule, even though it has since been rescinded, are already playing out in Salt Lake City. There, a local builder is looking to put between 35 and 48 new houses on a 3.1 acre parcel in the city’s Avenues neighborhood. All but a few of the houses would include built-in in-law apartments that buyers could ostensibly rent out or use to house their aging parents.

With such an arrangement, every house constructed with an in-law apartment becomes a two-for-one deal. Add to that the fact that the builder is asking the city to rezone the property in order to get more houses on it and it becomes apparent that granting permission for the project means measurably increasing the density in that neighborhood.

Moving Further Out

The thinking among those who oppose increased housing density in suburban neighborhoods is that current property owners will simply move further out of town. They do not want to live in densely packed neighborhoods, which is why they chose the suburbs to begin with.

If that ends up being the case, it is not hard to imagine single-family homes being purchased by developers just so they can be torn down and replaced with multifamily units. Over a long enough period of time, we would end up extending city borders by swallowing up the suburbs.

CityHome Collective, a real estate brokerage and interior design firm in Salt Lake City, says housing demand in the metro area is as high as it has ever been. Builders are putting up new houses as fast as they can. Meanwhile, existing home sales continue to be robust.

It is clear that something has to be done in Salt Lake City and elsewhere. The question is more ‘what’ than anything else. Is stacking and packing a better strategy than expanding suburbs outward? Everybody seems to have an opinion.

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