Cities and towns across Utah would be required to allow up to eight new homes per acre if they met specific criteria under a bill filed during the first week of the 45-day legislative session.
HB306 stipulates that, as long as a newly built home sells for less than the area’s median home price, cities and towns where most Utahns live must allow lots as small as 5,400 square feet. They must also allow newly defined single-family starter homes on residential lots.
The bill as written would allow up to eight single-family homes per acre as long as the homes build on the properties met affordability requirements. The new homes would also have to be sold to owners who would live in the home for at least five years as state leaders continue looking for ways to recreate so-called starter homes.
“I believe it’s important for the Legislature to think of the overall approach to zoning and housing,” Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, told Building Salt Lake.
The new minimum lot sizes under HB306 come out to a maximum density of about eight homes per acre, a density that is similar to much of Salt Lake City’s single-family zones.
The bill largely applies to the Wasatch Front and would take effect in cities that are home to 86 percent of Utah’s population, including all of Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, Davis and Washington counties plus Logan, Cedar City and Brigham City.
The bill would not apply to counties or towns with populations of fewer than 40,000 people.
The bill seeks to address the power local governments have to create zoning rules governing what can be built on privately owned land. Historically, those rules have stymied the creation of new housing, stifling new supply and helping to drive up the cost of housing.
Tactics like large minimum lot sizes, expansive setbacks and allowing builders to build only on a small portion of a private lot have all helped to make building starter homes unfeasible in much of the state. For instance, the “high density” residential zone in Hooper, the hometown of House Speaker Mike Schultz, requires at least 15,000 square feet for a single-family house. Most of the town requires at least 40,000 square foot lots for single-family homes.
As Utah’s population booms and green space in the exurbs are gobbled up for suburban sprawl, the land use restrictions in place have helped to drive up the cost of homes.
The result is that the median sale price for single-family homes in Utah is now $607,500, according to Redfin.
The bill is in line with the logic that smaller lots lead to less expensive homes that are more attainable.
“There’s two levels. One is to say you can’t deny based on the lot size. That requirement alone is still really, really easy for a city who doesn’t want it to undermine it,” Ward said. “They could say, ‘We approved the lot,’ but it still has 25-foot setbacks on all sides and you can’t build on any more than 10% of the land — which there are cities that have that.”
“That’s why there’s the other part” in which cities would be required to allow new homes as long as the lot is at least 5,400 square feet and the home was sold to an individual owner for less than the median home price, Ward added.
State leaders have largely neglected the feasibility of single-family attached homes — also known as townhomes — acting as starter homes. Townhomes cost 35 percent less than that, at $449,500, according to Zillow.
The omission of townhomes is likely an attempt to keep the bill cleaner and avoid an even bigger clash with cities and towns that are likely to organize against Ward’s bill or a similar one that’s expected to be filed in the Senate this session.
Ward acknowledged the Utah League of Cities and Towns is likely to oppose his bill.
The League is a lobbying group for the cities that seek to protect their authority over land use decisions, including restricting the supply of buildable land for housing. Its executive director told Building Salt Lake the group hadn’t yet met to discuss its position on Ward’s bill. Ward said he’s already heard their concerns.
“I know what they think of it,” Ward said of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. “I’m hoping that other groups that really do want more starter homes and affordable housing will come up and lobby for it as well.”
Gov. Spencer Cox’s office also didn’t respond to a request for comment on the new bill. As he unveiled his budget proposal, Cox set an ambitious goal for the state to create 35,000 new starter homes in the next four years. Ward said he didn’t work with Cox on his proposal.
“I really agree with the governor’s goal,” Ward said, “but this is just my idea.”
“The single greatest threat to our overall propserity is if no one here can aff to buy their first house,” he added. “We’ve been proud of having economic mobility. I really believe we will lose that.”
The next six weeks will determine whether entrenched interests will prevent the return of the starter home or not.