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Guest opinion: Let’s work together to find housing solutions

By Kim Dixon - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 21, 2022

Photo supplied, City of West Haven

West Haven City Council member Kim Dixon

As a member of the West Haven City Council, I read with interest the guest commentary by Bill Knowlton, “Affordable Housing — We Must Do More.”

I agree there is an acute shortage of affordable housing in the state at this time. It’s interesting the Mr. Knowlton mentions “private sector, community leaders, elected officials and municipal staff must do more to address the unprecedented demand for affordable housing in Utah. Zoning restrictions, expensive permits and fees and general attitudes surround affordable housing need an overhaul.”

I assume by private sector he is referring to the developer/Realtor community which seems to be absent in finding solutions.

In 2020, the Kem Gardner Policy Institute did a survey of Utah’s top homebuilders. There were 19 participants including several currently building developments in West Haven.

The study asked, “What are the most significant obstacles that you face with city approvals?”

Answer: Nimbyism (not in my backyard)/density. “Builders note issues with entitling new projects that ask for higher density and/or attached product even when meeting zoning requirements. There is a sense that denser and affordable (housing) should be built in another community.”

Let’s just get it out of the way right now that higher density has not led to affordability, at least not in West Haven.

At the end of the brief, the recommendations included: “Density bonus by right, cities should let the market decide.”

Translation — Developers should have the decision.

I may not speak for everyone, but city leaders are not anti-development. We are in favor of intelligent development allowing us to maintain our city’s history and uniqueness.

In the past, the Utah Legislature has mandated cities to meet certain requirements for zoning and moderate-income housing, again equating higher density with affordability.

Basically, their message to us has been “either you (the cities) fix it or we will.”

In 2020, then-House Rep. Paul Ray boasted to the Northern Wasatch Home Builders Association the fact that six members of the association were members of the state Legislature, including speaker of the House, Senate president and majority whip. In his speech, he stated:

“We have decided to allow a plan check that is stamped and certified by an engineer to bypass city review. We will allow the builder to hire a third-party inspector to complete the inspections instead of waiting several days for the city to schedule one. We are also restricting what type of building ordinances can be implemented by a city or county. It will be limited to health and safety; aesthetics will not be allowed. Gone will be the days of requiring rock and brick, pitch of a roof, what color the door is and other things that should be left up to the buyer.”

Is it any wonder that cities and towns dig in their heels when approached in this manner?

In addition, we are battling on different fronts. How does the drought and shortage of water, along with infrastructure, education, utilities, etc. fit in the pressure to build for increased population? The main consistent message we hear is “Build more units but use less water.”

We are constantly reminded that we need to provide housing for our children who want to return. Under the current situation, what kind of city will be left for them to come home to?

Instead of demanding solutions, I propose that we do away with the one-size-fits-all solution. Take the time to come to our cities, to meet with us and understand the challenges and issues we deal with. Let’s find ways to work together and still create and maintain a place our children will want to return to.

Besides serving our citizens, city officials are tasked with creating strong cities, building on our history and fostering community pride. We take all of our responsibilities very seriously.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and demanding a different result. It’s time we all get onboard to find solutions.

Legislators, developers, city leaders, transportation, water and utility officials, etc. should start approaching this city-by-city. Important questions need to be answered before we fill an open space with high-density housing just because it’s there.

I also suggest developers become part of the solution. The answer has to go further than grants and tax breaks. As a price for doing business in Utah, each developer should be required to build a percentage of their total homes as low- or moderate-income housing. With just a 10% requirement by the state, West Haven would currently have 100-plus (and more on the way) lower-income units.

I know. I’ve been called naïve and even ridiculous. But I think we in Utah can do better for our citizens by working together to find solutions. Otherwise, it will be business as usual and all of us, especially our citizens, lose. Our future depends on it.

Kim Dixon is a member of the West Haven City Council.

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