Rosa Bandeirinha, a 36-year-old communications specialist, moved to Utah in 2018, one of the people the state received from 2010 to 2020 as its population reached 3 million, according to census data. They joined their partner and her three kids’ household and as of now, they have no plans on expanding that family.

Since then, Bandeirinha’s life changed. They can count on one hand the places they can walk to from their Sandy home. None of them include going to work or shopping for groceries. Those tasks require picking up their car keys and driving.

Though they enjoy gardening in the house’s backyard and other perks of living in the suburbs, sometimes they wish the region had other options for those, like them, who want to live car-free.

“It would be great to have the choice that if you want to raise your kids with a bike, or if you want to raise your kids going on TRAX or the public bus, then you also can,” they said. “Right now, that option doesn’t really exist.”

That sentiment is common throughout the country. A higher demand for those options also emerges as Utah grows and its demographics are expected to change to predominantly smaller households, urban planners said.

In this file photo, construction trucks and workers building a housing and resort portion of the Desert Color development, St. George, Utah, May 23, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

In this scenario, Chris Nelson, emeritus presidential professor at the University of Utah, said the state’s focus should shift from the big homes and large lots that met the needs of the past, to small homes, small lots, apartments, condos and townhouses to accommodate the current and emerging demand.

The need for more diverse, denser housing options is pressing, said Nelson, also professor emeritus of urban planning and real estate development at the University of Arizona, as Utah is expected to substantially change by 2060.

Household sizes are declining in Utah. By 2060, the state’s average household will drop from the country’s highest level to an average of 2.45 people, below the national 2.5 average, according to research by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Smaller families would require smaller housing.

The state is also becoming older. In 2020 the average age in Utah was 32 years old, well under the national average of 38. But in 2060, the average age in the state is on track to climb to 42, one more year than what the institute estimates the national average will be by then.

“We’re moving away from large families, to small families, individuals, singles, couples, and so forth,” he said. “And our housing markets are not responding to that as well as they should. And our policymakers simply do not know the implications of declining household size on housing demand.”

In addition to that, most Americans living in metropolitan areas would like to live in a walkable community, a survey by the National Association of Realtors found, but only about 13% of the households in U.S. metropolitan areas had good walkable access, according to a 2015 Arizona State University study.

“In order for us to meet the market demand for people who want to live in walkable communities, every housing unit built between now and 2050 would have to be built in a walkable community, and we still wouldn’t meet demand,” Nelson said. “That’s how far behind we are.”

An older Utah

In 2020, the state accounted for three people on average per household, Mallory Bateman, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said. The half-a-person shift is connected to the upcoming changes in age dynamics.

Stock image | Photo by Buro Millenial/Pexels, St. George News

In 40 years, millennials, a big generational group, will be aging on top of the oldest groups. Add the declining fertility rates in the state since 2009 for a perfect smaller household formula.

“Having fewer kids combined with the population getting older makes for an older population,” Bateman said. “And older households are typically smaller because maybe you don’t have little kids in the house anymore.”

And, Bateman said, the institute expects those birth numbers to continue their way down because of different factors including more family planning options, women getting more education and being in the workforce, and the cost of living.

Utah has grown consistently, she said, with Wasatch Front counties getting larger population additions. Utah County, for example, gets a lot of school-aged children in the institute’s projections, in addition to other areas, such as Iron and Washington counties.

“All of these places, though, have been places that have been experiencing some pretty strong growth for decades. So it’s not a massive shift from what we’ve been seeing, but we think it will continue into the future.”

What can the state do?

Utah is a national leader in a substantial solution: giving existing units the right to build internal accessory dwelling units within the footprint of the primary home, a rule that supersedes any covenants, conditions or restrictions imposed in deeds or homeowner associations. Municipalities permit detached accessory dwelling units in certain areas.

But that opportunity comes with challenges, Nelson said, as the state is lacking builders who specialize in them.

Though the bill that Rep. Raymond Ward sponsored – which widened the internal accessory dwelling unit permissions – passed in 2021, he still hears about it.

“I still get phone calls from people all around the state asking me about that bill because there are cities who still try and block people and there are homeowners associations who don’t know about the bill,” he said, “and they don’t care about the bill.”

Though Ward has seen people struggle with challenging those who try to block the construction of internal accessory dwelling units, he has also seen cities and associations easing their rules around them.

Housing in Utah is one of the most expensive among Republican states, Ward said, that’s why fewer restrictions would help the free market work.

“To me, it’s really time for us to stop choking off building of housing, in particular smaller housing on smaller lots,” he said. “We just need to let that happen.”

This year, Ward is working on a bill that would require cities to allow up to eight single-family homes per acre in residential zones.

“The city still can forbid a duplex or fourplex or triplex,” he said. “But if it’s a home where it’s one family and one home that lives there, then they would have to allow smaller lots.”

In this file photo, residential construction is underway in a part of Washington County, Utah, 2023 | Photo by Aaron Crane, St. George News

Additionally, the bill states that if a builder is willing to sell those kinds of homes to someone willing to occupy them for at least five years at a lower-than-average price, the builders wouldn’t face other zoning restrictions, including leaving the majority of the lot’s ground open, or leaving a certain amount of space between property lines.

Nelson also believes that governments should allow more housing units on vacant pieces of land. And take advantage of commercial stock that could be redeveloped into moderate-density housing — 20 to 40 units an acre.

Allowing the right to build residential units in commercial and office zones could also help add units near jobs without local zoning restrictions getting in the way, Nelson said.

“We need to rethink our zoning restrictions to expand the right to build residential in many more places than we allow now,” he said. “Maybe that takes a state law; I hope not, but maybe that’s where we have to go.”

Following up on the Housing and Community Development Division’s moderate-income housing plans that the state requires from municipalities, which analyze realistic opportunities for the development of moderate-income housing, would also help meet housing needs, he said.

For Bandeirinha, who highly values walkable communities, living in the suburbs may not be their first choice, but it’s definitely a financially savvy one.

“Buying a house in the suburbs for a family of five, for example, is so much more affordable than buying the same house downtown,” they said.

Having access to those suburbian perks can be possible, Bandeirinha said, if planners and developers consider high-quality density factors.

“We have very little examples of apartment buildings that can accommodate a family of five where everybody has space, where there’s a big kitchen, where there’s lots of bedrooms,” they said, “and at the same time, you’re close to the TRAX station, and you’re right downtown and you can walk to the store and you can walk to work.”

As the population grows older and more diverse, Bandeirinha hopes to see less sprawl and more diverse types of units at different price ranges, sizes and proximity to public transportation.

“City planning just has so many possibilities and it’s so full of creative options,” they said, “and yet we don’t seem to use them as much as we could.”

Written by ALIXEL CABRERA, Utah News Dispatch.

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