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Homes on the Range: A Series on Housing Demand, Underproduction, and a Call for Action to Meet Housing Needs in the West to 2030

November 13, 2022 by Nicole Mason


We all know intuitively that demand for homes exceeds supply. This pushes up prices and rents, stifles choice, and prevents people from relocating to advance their economic or personal well-being. Although we’ve often had more demand than supply, it seems to be getting worse.

Over the next several issues of The Western Planner, I will assess the broad housing needs of western states and metropolitan areas to 2030. In this issue, I will take a broad look at housing demand and supply in the 14 western mainland states served by The Western Planner, including alphabetically Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming (see Figure 1). Indeed, I have lived in three of those states (Arizona, Oregon, and Utah) and through consulting or research projects, have become familiar with the rest reasonably well. Future issues will be devoted to groups of states and their major metropolitan areas.

In this issue, I will take a broad view of all the conterminous western states. This will create the template I will use to assess the individual states and their metropolitan areas. This broad perspective will:

  • Project population and households and change to 2030, focusing on the shift in households by householder age for reasons I will soon explain; and
  • Summarize housing underproduction between 2012 and 2019 using data from Up for Growth, a DC-based think-tank of which I serve on its advisory board;
  • Project overall housing needs for the nation, the western states, and the West as whole; and
  • Issue a call for “smart planning” to meet housing needs in the West.

I will not offer solutions to fixing housing underproduction, leaving that to later installments. Let’s now take a big look at the western states.

Figure 1. States used for the Western Planner Series, Homes on the Range

Source: Map created with

Population Projections

As a planner, I find it incredible that many and perhaps most cities and counties in the West do not include population or household projections in their plans and of those that do, scant few have a sense of where their population and household trends are headed. I hope to remedy this at the county level through a new book in the works. For now, let me explore where the West is headed.

For this, I use Woods & Poole Economics, a DC-based, commercial demographic and economic forecasting firm. It’s the only firm that provides county level projections of people, demographics, jobs by economic sector, economic performance, households, and households by income to a horizon year, to 2060. For now, however, I’ll focus on the period 2020 to 2030 because in my view we cannot be lulled into kicking the planning can to future generations of planners to solve. Put bluntly, unless we create the mechanisms to solve our housing problems now, they won’t be solved by 2040 or 2060 or 2100.

Table 1 reports state-level and total western population growth. While the West is projected to account for 31% of the nation’s growth to 2030 (see bottom right number), California would account for 35% of the West’s growth. Arizona (16%), Washington (11%), Colorado (9%) and Nevada (8%) would account for another 44% of the West’s growth. Those 5 states are projected to account for about 80% of the West’s growth. These are not really surprises based on past trends. Once we get into individual metropolitan areas in future issues, surprises will emerge.

Table 2 shows growth and shares of growth in the West among White non-Hispanic persons and all persons, which since the 2000s I have termed the “New Majority”. For the US and the West as a whole, the New Majority will comprise all population growth. This is also the case collectively for the five states accounting for the largest share of population growth: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington.

I will next report trends for households with some potentially alarming implications.

Household Trends or the Past is not the Future

Very large shares of our civic leaders seem to have the view that the future will be like their past. This is very short-sighted thinking with potentially catastrophic implications for housing. This section offers sobering perspectives.

I divide housing demand into three broad groups based on householder age. Those households headed by a person less than 35 years of age are typically looking for starter homes such as apartments, condominiums, townhouses, and smaller homes on smaller lots. Those between 35 and 64 years of age are at their peak housing demand stage of life where partners with children and pets want larger homes on larger lots. America became a suburban nation between about 1960 and 1990 as parents of baby boom children born between 1946 and 1964 wanted housing and yard space which is exactly what suburbs provided. For their part, between about 1980 and 2010, boomers sought homes to raise their families in the suburbs they knew. Beginning in 2011, however, boomers began turning 65, which is the age at which I classify householders as downsizing or empty nesters seeking smaller homes on smaller lots or attached options. By 2029, all boomers will have entered the downsizing stage. Table 3 shows the numerical shift in demand for housing by these three household types: starter, peak housing, and downsizing for the nation, each of the 14 western states, and the West as a whole. Figure 2 illustrates the nature of changes in demand for the nation while Figure 3 illustrates this for the West.

These are the key trends for the nation:

  • While starter home householders accounted for just 2% of the nation’s change in housing demand between 1990 and 2010—they were mostly the Gen-X or “echo boom” generation born between 1965 and 1980, between 2010 and 2030 they will account for 18% of the national share of housing demand change.
  • Peak housing households comprised mostly of boomers accounted for 72% of the change in national demand for housing between 1990 and 2010. However, between 2010 and 2030, they will account for a negative share of the change in housing demand.
  • Downsizing households accounted for 26% of the change in housing demand between 1990 and 2010 but are projected to account for 83% of the change in demand nationally.

Trends in the West are projected to be similar:

  • Starter home householders accounted for 9% of the change in demand between 1990 and 2010, rising to 16% 2010 and 2030.
  • Peak housing households comprised mostly of boomers accounted for 65% of the change in demand for housing in the west between 1990 and 2010 but this will fall to just 10% between 2010 and 2030.
  • Like the nation, downsizing households accounted for 26% of the change in housing demand between 1990 and 2010 but are projected to account for 74% of the change in demand in the West

I venture to say that too large a share of our public officials as well as planners, housing providers, and others are not aware of these trends and instead base their decisions on a past they knew but which no longer exists.   Figure 4 illustrates the differences in housing demand between peak and downsizing households. This leads me to concerns about housing underproduction, presented next.

Figure 3. Change in share of housing demand by householder age for the West between 1990-2010, and 2010-2030

Figure 2. Change in share of housing demand by householder age for the nation between 1990-2010, and 2010-2030

Figure 3. Change in share of housing demand by householder age for the nation between 1990-2010, and 2010-2030

Figure 4.  What peak and downsizing households want for their homes and communities

Note: 65+ means householders who are 65 years of age or older.

Housing Underproduction in the West, 2012-2019

The nation arguably produced more housing than needed to meet market demand during the 2000s, which led in part to the Great Recession of 2007-09. Since then, production faltered from the period 2012—after the GR, to 2019—before the COVID-19 pandemic. I will focus here on the extent to which housing was underproduced during this period. The methodology and data come from Up for Growth (see, a non-partisan DC-based think tank devoted to using policy to help expand housing supply. I also disclose that I am a member of its advisory board and assisted in methodological development.

To measure housing underproduction, we must first know what should have been produced to meet market needs. The general formula is:

Housing Demand =

Existing dwelling units

+ Dwelling units needed by “missing households” such as younger persons living with their parents longer than historical indicators, households doubling or tripling up in the same unit, and so forth

+ Housing units that are not habitable, defined as having no kitchen and/or no bathroom

–  Second homes

+ or – normally vacant housing units where lower than 5% vacancy rate means more units are needed while higher than 5% vacancy rate means fewer units are needed.

Table 4 reports housing unproduction between 2012 and 2019 for the nation, each of the western states, and the West as a whole. Some key observations are:

  • The nation produced about 1/3rd (34%) fewer homes than needed;
  • California led the nation and the West in producing 60% fewer homes than needed;
  • Only North Dakota and Wyoming produced homes commensurate with demand mostly because they are the slowest growing of the western states; and
  • Overall, the West produced 44% fewer homes than needed including California and 32% excluding that state, about the national average.

Reasons for underproduction include the usual suspects such as: exclusionary zoning: NIMBYism (not-in-my-backyard); protracted review processes; development mitigations (“exactions”) that exceed impact (“inefficient” mitigation); high permit, connection, and other fees; antiquated building codes; and so forth. But one of the reasons may be simply that decision makers do not know what is needed to meet emerging housing needs. I present a broad perspective of housing needs next.

New Homes on the Range Needed between 2019 and 2030

Planning is all about anticipating needs and choreographing resources to meet them consistent with what I call “smart planning” goals which I will outline in the next section. In this section, I project total new housing needs.

Table 5 reports the total new housing units needed for the nation, each of the western states, and the West. Future housing units needed are calculated as households projected to 2030 by Woods & Poole economics times [dwelling units 2019 divided by households 2019].  This figure, less units exiting in 2019 based on the American Community Survey, plus underproduced housing units as of 2019 from Up for Growth generates new units needed between 2019 and 2030. For the nation, that figure is nearly 22.8 million units which averages more than 2.0 million units per year between 2019 and 2030. By way of perspective, the US built about an equivalent number of homes at the height of the housing bubble during 2003-05, but that exceeded market demand helped trigger the Great Recession (Nelson at al. 2017).  The differences going forward into the 2020s and the 2030s are:

First, housing underproduction of nearly 3.8 million homes between 2012-2019 needs to be remedied.

Second, the nation loses about 2% of its housing stock each decade through disaster, dereliction, and demolition, which I call the “3 Ds” of housing demand projections. This adds about another 3.0 million homes to the demand. (I am assuming for the moment that this adjustment is embedded in the estimation for total housing units needed in 2030 described above. My current research will refine this.)

Net new units based on these adjustments is about 16.0 million homes or less than 1.5 million new units annually.

Third, however, an aging population needs more housing units—albeit smaller ones—for the same population. For instance, while the average household size of households with householders between 35 and 49 years of age is more than 3.0 persons (because they typically include younger persons), for households with householders 65 years of age and older it is less than 2.0. As we are already in the midst of an explosion (that no one seems to have noticed) in the growth of older households who will be downsizing in increasing numbers, the demand for smaller homes on smaller lots and attached homes will be growing faster than the overall household growth rate.

Key findings from Table 5 are:

  • The West will account for about 27% of the nation’s new housing needs;
  • Not surprisingly, California will account for 46% of the new housing needs in the West; and
  • The top 5 growth states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington) will comprise 80% of the need for new homes in the West.

The numbers are at once staggering, yet manageable. For instance, if just a tenth (10%) of the more than 50 million homes that are more than 2,000 square feet added an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) between now and 2030, we would meet a quarter (25%) of the demand for new units by 2030 while converting a fifth (20%) would meet half (50%) of the needs—using only existing homes. Considering the nature of change in housing demand based on demographic shifts, the market might deliver these ADUs if regulatory and financial institutions can be made more accommodating.

Toward Smart Planning in the West

The year 2022 marked my 50 years in planning. I also became emeritus professor of planning after 38 years in the academy, which followed a dozen years in professional practice including a stint as planning director of a rural Oregon county. I am now free to pursue new passions, such as steering the profession toward what I call smart planning. Not that we don’t try to be smart about planning, but it would be helpful to characterize its overarching goals.

But let’s first put the need for smart planning into the context of the West. The 11 conterminous western mountain states (excluding North and South Dakota, and Alaska) have little control over most of their landscapes. Table 6 shows that about 45% of the land in those western states are privately owned. For lack of water, terrain constraints, and other factors, most of the private land is not buildable. My back-of-the-envelope sense is that the nearly 80 million people who live in these western states do so on less than 10% of the total land area of those states—about 120,000 square miles. For instance, the Los Angeles metropolitan area is the nation’s second largest but most densely settled while about 90% of Oregon’s population lives on just 5% of its land base (the Willamette Valley) and “sprawling” Phoenix has twice the urbanized land density as America’s urban areas. By way of perspective, Germany’s 84 million people—about the same as the mountain West’s 80 million—live on about 138,000 square miles—about the same as the mountain West’s 120,000 square miles of private land—although its urban form is much more compact. Among all the regions in the nation, it is the West that is the most constrained in the availability of land and water for growth. We therefore must have smarter planning than the rest of the nation, with a nod to Hawaii, which has the ultimate in constraints.

Adapting from Nelson and Duncan (1995), I proceed now to outline 5 over-arching smart planning goals in the context of meeting our housing needs.

Goal 1: Provide Public and Common Goods

Smart planning provides and ideally enhances public and common goods. Public goods are those deemed by a society to be important to advancing its well-being. They are non-rival, meaning that no matter how many people may use them, no one is deprived of their benefits. They are also non-excludable, meaning that no one can be deprived of their use through user fees, quotas, or other limitations. National defense is one example, as are lighthouses, streetlights, clean air, and knowledge. In local land use planning, examples of public goods are scenic views and vistas, and historically, culturally, and scientifically important sites and landscapes, among others. Many tools are available to provide these local public goods such as taxes and other revenues to acquire and maintain them, and regulation to preserve their benefits.

Common goods are non-excludable, meaning no one can be deprived of their use, but they are rivalrous, meaning that if more people use them than is sustainable, everyone is harmed (Hardin 1968). In planning, examples of common goods are public roads, public parks, public safety, and public schools, among others. Taxes, user fees, quotas, and regulation help provide them as well as prevent their overuse. A challenging part of planning is addressing land that confers both public and private goods, such as farmland, forestland, rangeland, and related landscapes. While agricultural land uses have classically had the characteristics of private goods, they also produce such public goods as: wildlife habitat and biodiversity; protection of natural resources including soil, water, and air quality; pollination of crops; flood control and extreme weather mitigation; carbon storage; and human physical and mental well-being, among others.

We need smart planning to identify those public and common goods the community decides it needs to provide and then determine how they will be delivered. Smart planning then allocates resources and guides development patterns, usually through regulation, to achieve this goal. Doing so often adds value to new development that can be leveraged into new resources to help provide those and other public and common goods. Indeed, capturing value added preserving public and common goods can and should be reinvested into providing housing.

Goal 2: Maximize the Use of Existing and New Infrastructure to Minimize Costs

Infrastructure is expensive to construct and maintain. All too often, local governments arrange their land use patterns to underuse infrastructure, thereby raising costs on everyone. For instance, if a road has the capacity to serve 10,000 homes in an area, zoning to limit homes to half that number means road costs per home are doubled. I know of situations where the reconstruction of older roads in low-density neighborhoods costs more than several decades worth of property taxes generated by all the homes in that neighborhood combined. At sufficient density, along with smart infrastructure financing programs, resources would be available to build and maintain infrastructure over the long term. Short of this, maintenance is deferred, and higher costs are usually incurred in the future. In some cases, the high cost of paying for deferred maintenance requires cutting local budgets for public safety, parks and recreation, and other services. Smart planning maximizes the use of new and existing infrastructure, which reduces present and future public costs. Savings can be used to help finance other government goods and services, including economic development, or reduce taxes and fees, or various
combinations. In the context of housing, it may very well be the case that a large share of the infrastructure we need to serve new homes already exists; the challenge is to put new housing where the infrastructure is already paid for. And in those situations, perhaps impact fees and water/sewer connection fees would not be needed or reduced to reflect more efficient delivery of facilities.

Goal 3: Maximize Positive Land Use Interactions and Minimize Negative Ones

Zoning was invented in large part to separate land uses deemed incompatible with one another. The famous Euclid v. Ambler case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that zoning was a police power function, dealt in part with a city wanting to separate new subdivisions from noxious industrial activities nearby. For sure, there is ample evidence showing that certain land uses impose negative externalities on others. But land uses can also be complementary in ways that modern planning and zoning codes do not appreciate fully. Indeed, because of modern environmental policies, building codes, and advances in architecture, design, and materials, it may be more the case that incompatible land uses are the exceptions. Smart planning takes a fresh look at development codes to determine the maximum number of land uses that are compatible with one another and crafts codes that maximize those positive land use interactions. This fresh look can identify new opportunities to meet housing needs more appropriately than the conventional approach of converting greenspaces into expensive, low-density development and asphalt.

Goal 4: Equitably Distribute the Benefits and Burdens of Change

Planning that is socially just will find ways in which to fairly distribute the benefits and burdens of change equitably among constituents. Indeed, the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Code of Ethics requires planners to seek ways in which to do so:

We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.

This is potentially revolutionary if carried out fully, as it must be. We start by recognizing that much of our planning and development regulations are rooted in patently discriminatory practices, as shown by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law (2017). Much of our planning is also blind to the ethics of equity. For instance, consider impact fees for dwelling units. They are often charged on the basis of a single unit regardless of its type or size. The result is that smaller units that average fewer persons per unit and at higher density pay proportionately more in impact fees than larger units that average more persons at lower density. This is a patently inefficient and inequitable subsidy benefiting higher income, usually White and otherwise higher income households (Nelson, Nicholas, and Merriam 2022).  Going forward, as American society continues to change along racial/ethnic, age, education, and wealth dimensions, smart planning will be needed to characterize the nature of change and then craft plans and other policies that equitably distribute the benefits and burdens of that change.

Goal 5: Elevate Quality of Life

Research shows that mixed land uses, higher densities, and improved transportation and land use accessibility elevate quality of life in such ways as improving personal and public health, enhancing economic resilience, creating sense of community, and advancing well-being among others. We are far from having the number of communities that maximize quality of life that we should, and are possible. My review of Community Preference Surveys conducted by the National Association of Realtors since 2004 reveals that while roughly half of American households want to live in walkable communities with a mix of housing opportunities, only a fifth do (Parolek with Nelson 2020). In other words, our planning and development institutions are underserving tens of millions of households. In this respect, smart planning is needed to help reshape existing communities and build new ones that elevate the quality of life for all Americans who want to live in mixed use, walkable communities with a range of housing choices, and at affordable prices. Research shows that doing so will advance the quality of life for those millions of households.

This overview sets the stage for six more articles, outlined in the concluding section.

The Rest of this Series

From these foundations, I plan to profile groups of western states, in no particular order and subject to change being:

Southern Tier 🡪 Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah

Northern Tier 🡪 Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota

Northwest 🡪 Alaska, Oregon, and Washington


For each I will include their projected growth, housing demand, and housing underproduction features similar to what I have done here. I will also highlight what I consider to be significant efforts to expand housing supply to meet needs pursued by individual states and communities. The series will conclude with an overall perspective of what more can be done to expand the supply of homes in the West.

About the Series Author

Arthur C. Nelson, Ph.D., FAICP, is Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning and Real Estate Development at the University of Arizona where he designed an online Master of Real Estate Development program that has become the nation’s top-rated and most diverse graduate real estate degree opportunity. He is also Presidential Professor Emeritus of City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah where he was founding director of the Metropolitan Research Center and the Master of Real Estate Development Program. Nelson is from Oregon and has engaged in professional practice or research in all the conterminous western states. He is the author of more than 20 books, more than 400 other publications, and has been a principal investigator or Co-PI of more than $50 million in grants and contracts.

by Arthur C. Nelson, Ph.D., FAICP


Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162(3859): 1243-1248 (1968).

Nelson, Arthur C. and James B. Duncan, Growth Management Principles and Practice, Routledge (1995).

Nelson, Arthur C., John Travis Marshall, James C. Nicholas, Julian Conrad Juergensmeyer, Market Demand-Based Planning and Permitting, American Bar Association (2017).

Nelson, Arthur C., James C. Nicholas, Dwight Merriam, “Preventing the Application of Nollan/Dolan/Koontz to Impact Fees” in Patricia Salkin, ed., Zoning and Planning Law Report (2022).

Parolek, Daniel G. with Arthur C. Nelson, Missing Middle Housing: Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis, Island Press (2020).

Rothstein, Richard, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Economic Policy institute (2017).


Feedback Requested: APA Draft Equity in Zoning Policy Guide

Public engagement



Zoning regulation enforcement

I am pleased to share that you can now comment on the latest draft of APA’s Equity in

Zoning Policy Guide. This guide is game-changing and aims to identify specific ways in

which policy makers – together with planners – can dismantle barriers that perpetuate the

separation of historically disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in key areas,


It also offers specific guidance that state and federal policy makers can use to shape zoning

reform policy.

I strongly encourage you to download, review, and share your feedback during this member

comment period. The deadline for comments is Monday, Nov. 14. Send your comments to

We also encourage you to share this widely with chapter members through your enewsletter,

personal emails, social media, and whatever additional channels make the most

sense for your chapter.

APA will use all member comments received during this period to inform final adjustments

to the draft guide before it goes to our member-appointed body for further amendment,

debate, and approval. This phase is the final piece of an extensive outreach process.

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