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APA Utah News & Events

Need To Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

April 11, 2023 by Nicole Mason


By Wilf Sommerkorn

April 11, 2023

The Utah Land Use Institute Spring Conference in St. George last week was a great event,  well-attended and with lots of good discussions and information presented.  Be sure to check out the ULUI website to see the video-recorded sessions and pick up some of what went on.

As much of the talk at the conference was centered around housing affordability related to changes to local land use regulations and practices, I heard some attendees make this comment:  even if all the changes to local land use are made and housing production is increased, will the housing really be more affordable?  Will the cost of housing come down?  I’ve heard this before on a number of occasions, from a variety of different people.  I’d say mostly this is a gut sense, that even with lowered costs the price of housing stays up there because of market forces.  I’ve even heard builders say, well, we will charge whatever the going rate is in the market.

Now there may be something to put some meat on the bone of this contention.  A paper published on March 21, 2023 in the journal Urban Studies titled Land-Use Reforms and Housing Costs: Does Allowing for Increased Density Lead to Greater Affordability? points to an answer:  not really.

The authors looked at this question:

The debate over how to increase the supply of affordable housing … stands unresolved. Many housing economists posit that inadequate supply stems from overly restrictive land-use regulations. Loosening these restrictions might increase housing production and thus decrease prices.

The study looked at eight major metropolitan areas encompassing some 1,136 municipalities, each with their own land use regulations, from 2000 to 2019.  The overall conclusion?

We find that cities that passed reforms loosening land-use regulations (increasing allowed housing density, or “upzoning”) saw a statistically significant increase in their housing supply compared to cities without reforms. This increase, however, occurred predominantly for rental units affordable to households with higher-than-middle-incomes over the short- and medium-term following reform passage; effects for units affordable to those with extremely low incomes and very low incomes were positive but not significant, perhaps due to the small number of such units at baseline in each city.

In other words, housing affordability did not generally get better with loosening of local land use regulations and increases in housing production.  In the words of the study authors:

These results suggest that reforms loosening restrictions are, on average, associated with an uptick in new housing supply. But this increase is likely inadequate to increase the availability of housing affordable to low- and middle-income households in the short-term, at least within the jurisdictions that execute reforms, and among the reforms that we studied.

The study authors do have some suggestions:

Cities should consider pairing direct investments in housing subsidies, such as immediate investments in housing vouchers and project-based subsidies for publicly assisted housing, with reforms loosening restrictions to address both short-term and long-term housing affordability.

We did see some of this in our most recent legislative session.  It seems that much more effort needs to be concentrated on the second part of this recommendation, however, in comparison to the attention that is being given to the first part.

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