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For years the scarcity of what might be considered “starter homes” in Utah has been painfully obvious to anyone who has been looking or known someone looking to buy their first home.
Stories of first-time buyers, newlyweds or recent graduates with jobs, losing out others willing to pay over asking price for entry-level homes or soaring prices simply putting a purchase out of reach have been easy to come by.
But the pain felt by so many Utahns denied a first home purchase may finally be reaching new and perhaps the right levels according to Steve Waldrip, who Gov. Spencer Cox named as his new housing “czar” in December.
Cox appointed Waldrip to fill the newly created position of Senior Advisor for Housing Strategy and Innovation.
“I’ve been in too many meetings with decision makers, at the state and local level, who have kids still living at home or in their basements,” Waldrip, a former state lawmaker, said in an exclusive interview with Building Salt Lake. “They come up to me and say, ‘We have to do something. My kids have nowhere to go.’ Sometimes, that’s what it takes for an issue to hit home is for it to get personal.”
In his announcement, the Governor stated “Steve has a passion for housing and deep experience in housing attainability, housing development, and the legislative process. He’s respected across the board and I’m so grateful he’s willing to join our administration to work on these important issues.”
In a state where leaders trumpet the free market and are generally regulation averse, the creation of the new position and the appointment of Waldrip seems to signal state leaders recognize there is a problem and may be willing to wade further into the troubled waters of Utah’s housing market.
After launching the First-time Homebuyer Assistance program last year and in announcing his budget for FY2025 Cox stated his goal of building 35,000 new starter homes over the next five years and requested $150 million for a range of programs to assist first-time buyers, home builders and cities who need help paying for new infrastructure.
He also proposed expanding sweat equity programs for those who want to participate in building their homes, supporting community land trusts that will lease ground for new homes and recruiting a off-site builder of prefabricated homes.
A background putting people in homes
Waldrip is trained as a tax attorney and has also worked in real estate and development. He served as a state representative from Utah House district 8 from 2018 to 2022 and was chairman of the Commission on Housing Affordability.
In 2011 he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Homes Fund, a non-profit that partnered with employers and banks to assist first-time homebuyers, initially focused on front-line health care workers, teachers and civil servants, in Weber County.
“Housing is a real passion for me. This is a headwaters issue that touches so many other parts of our society,” he said. “With the Rocky Mountain Homes Fund, I’ve seen the move from renting to ownership change people’s lives dramatically. When you are out from under that stress of impermanence, not knowing about rent increases and things like that, it frees you up to focus on other parts of your life. If you give people the opportunity for stability they will almost always rise to the occasion.”
Urgency to increase supply
Since his appointment, Waldrip has resigned from his positions with RMH and has been focusing on the details of his new position and what housing related issues the legislature should consider in the coming session.
Two of the most significant and related issues will be increasing the supply of entry-level priced housing and how the state can influence locally controlled planning and zoning ordinances that regulate density.
“Our problem here and in many others states is supply,” Waldrip said. “When there is not enough supply the prices go crazy and those price increases have killed the ability of too many people to buy a home.”
A recent survey from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found that only 15% of current renters in Utah make enough to buy a $300,000 to $400,000 home.
The state’s First-time Homebuyer Assistance program gives loans of up to $20,000 to those purchasing a newly built home priced up to $450,000. But according to various sources the median price for a home in the Beehive state is between $494,250 (Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute) and $502,647 (Zillow).
Local ‘no growth’ policies not an option
One way to push costs down is to increase the supply of entry-level priced homes and that will likely require higher densities which is a zoning decision typically made at the local municipal level.
“Mayors and city council members are elected to serve the interests of local citizens and there have been a rash of elections where the new officials have made it clear they have a ‘no growth’ position,” said Waldrip. “When you talk about increasing density so many residents say ‘You’re going to ruin our way of life’ but I think the quickest way to ruin the Utah way of life is to not build homes for our kids or let homes be bought up by people from somewhere else.”
One of the key negotiations we’ll have in the next legislative session is how does the state address this statewide need for more housing when the zoning authority is parceled out to individual cities? There is an appropriate role for the state to play in this debate and there are carrots and sticks available to us,” he said. “Housing affordability is a nationwide problem and some of our neighboring states have tackled it. My job is to work with the cities, the home builders, the realtors and try to figure out the Utah way of doing this.”
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