"Gentle" Density – Is It the Solution to the Wasatch Front's Housing Problems?

One of the methods to make something better when its been labeled bad is to change the label. Provide it with a more appealing label. Density is a good example. Density immediately brings up bad pictures in people's heads. Apartments, overcrowded and rundown neighborhoods and gang activity are what Utahns associate with density. Could it be so easy to relabel density to something more appealing to solve the Wasatch Front's housing shortage, especially its worsening affordable housing shortage?

I recently read a 2019 online article on the Brookings Institution's website that suggests that "gentle density" can save our neighborhoods ( ). The article focuses on revitalizing older, inner-city neighborhoods with gentle density. The premises can also be used in the Wasatch Front's suburbs to give density a better name and a better appeal to existing residents.

The article explains the overall premise in this initial paragraph.

"But as communities across the U.S. grapple with worsening housing affordability, there is growing interest in how zoning rules could be relaxed to allow smaller, less expensive homes, as in Minneapolis. Often, the choice is posed as a trade-off between detached homes with big yards or skyscraping apartment towers. In reality, the housing stock in most communities is much more diverse than these two extremes. While high-rise apartments in strategic locations should be part of the solution, many single-family neighborhoods could easily yield more housing—and more affordable housing—if land use rules allowed "gentle" increases in density, such as townhomes, two- to four-family homes, and small-scale apartment or condominium buildings."

We have seen the Wasatch Front react in the same way. The number of multistorey (more than three floors) apartment developments rising in the greater Downtown Salt Lake City area is mind-boggling. Cranes are everywhere Downtown, and most of them are for apartment developments. We also see multistorey apartment developments rising along I-15 in South Salt Lake County and North Utah County. Apparently, it's easier to get approval for a 300 unit apartment development than a 100 unit townhome development.

Some of the other premises that the article makes are the following.

Building more housing on single-family parcels doesn't require skyscrapers.

"The homes most attractive for redevelopment are older structures that are in poor physical condition and located on relatively large lots in expensive neighborhoods. Let's visualize some different scenarios for a 4,500 square foot lot, currently occupied by a two-and-a-half-story, 3,000 square foot single-family home. Figure 1 shows sample site plans for the lot as is, redeveloped with three side-by-side townhomes, or redeveloped with a three-story, six-unit condo building."

Where land is expensive, building more homes per parcel increases affordability.

Forty years ago in Southern California, especially in beach communities, lot sizes started getting dramatically smaller while homes got larger. In the last 40 years, it has been the norm to build homes from setback to setback line, putting a 4,500 square foot two story home on a 3,000 square foot lot. Where homes might go sideyard to sideyard, they rarely ever were built front yard to backyard.

The traditional Wasatch Front 3,000 square foot single-story ranch home on a minimum 8,000 square foot lot can be designed a 3.8 lots per gross acre. A modern 3,000 square foot two-story home on a minimum 3,000 square foot lot can be designed at 10.0 units per acre.

A buildable acre for single-family homes that today cost $200,000 per acre can be subdivided to $52,600 per lot with minimum 8,000 square foot lots or $20,000 per lot for minimum 3,000 square foot lots. The home building costs will likely be equal, but $22,600 land costs can dramatically differ from the amortized monthly payment on a 30-year mortgage.

Density supports neighborhood retail and a healthier planet.

This is one area that I have never understood. Every city wants to increase its sales tax base. It's much easier to add more homes to a retail area than bring new stores. More families would increase shopping in existing businesses, increase the stability of the city's economy and add sales tax dollars.

Recently I had a new residential development that proposed over 1,000 new homes in Salt Lake County. We had a fiscal impact analysis performed by Bob Springmeyer at Bonneville Research, and the study found that the city's recently opened grocery store, the only one in town, would receive roughly $4,000,000 in new revenue annually from the families moving into the new development. The city would receive over $1,000,000 annually in sales tax, franchise taxes and fees. The proposal was denied even after the grocery store owner made a personal appeal at the city council meeting that the new development would solidify the financial stability of their store. As a side point, the city had to subsidize the store to get the owner to build the store. The time frame on the subsidies is about to sunset.

More homes equal more affordability and economic opportunity.

"Diversifying the housing stock in exclusive neighborhoods creates better access to economic opportunity. The reason land is expensive in these neighborhoods is because they are located near job centers and transportation hubs, and offer amenities such as excellent public schools and low crime. Lowering housing prices from $1 million to $570,000—and adding five new homes for each existing home—would substantially expand the number of families who could afford high opportunity neighborhoods. Put another way, gentle density is a relatively easy way to democratize our cities."

Gentle Density creates homes and is not an "invasion."

The article points out that single-family detached zoning states that low-density zoning aims to "protect single-family areas from invasion by denser types of residential development." When the prevailing attitude, as it is in the Wasatch Front, that density is an invasion into single-family neighborhoods, the opportunity to increase densities, even gently, is, at best, difficult or, more likely, impossible.

Is it enough to change the name to Gentle Density? Of course not. We would not be fooling anyone who already sees density as the enemy. Education is needed that the premises used even ten years ago to zone land, create zoning standards, and approve subdivisions are no longer applicable.

In December 2021, Utah Foundation President Peter Reichard wrote an Op-Ed that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune that included the following statement.

"Recent Utah Foundation research reveals that more than 80% of Utahns perceive home prices and rents as being too high. A Utah Foundation survey found that most respondents don't think they could afford the homes they currently own if they wanted to purchase them today. And nearly 90% are worried about housing costs, especially for young Utahns."

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by Stephen G. McCutchan