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Department Of Workforce Services Says Utah ‘Can’t Build Our Way Out’ Of Housing Crisis

A photo of a construction site for townhouses.
Brian Albers
A housing specialist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services told Utah legislators Tuesday the solution to the state’s affordable housing problems wasn’t as simple as building more houses. He said stagnant wages were also part of the issue.

The solution to Utah’s affordable housing crisis isn’t to build more housing, which is the state’s current approach.

That’s what David Fields, a housing specialist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, told state legislators during a presentationTuesday.

“We can’t assume that if we just build and build, there'll be a trickle-down effect,” Fields said. “It's just not empirically tenable.”

He said one of the main factors behind Utah’s housing crisis is stagnant wages.

“Working families are devoting more and more shares of household income to housing costs,” he said. “Because if wages are barely rising in light of rapid housing price inflation, well, the implication is pretty apparent.”

Fields said census data show there’s actually an excess of housing units, and many are vacant. He says one reason could be because people are just buying houses as investments or it could be that some homes are in disrepair and unlivable.

Some lawmakers on the committee strongly disagreed.

Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, works in real estate in Weber and Davis Counties.

“What you're saying just makes no practical sense on the ground in Utah or especially in the areas that I am,” Musselman said. “And the idea that there's plenty of housing just does not coincide with statistics.”

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, said he had a problem with just about everything in the presentation.

“A person can go through and find whatever they are looking for based on what they choose to read, and I think that is what happened in this presentation,” Harper said. “It is biased and fallacious.”

Fields said he wanted to show how other factors besides housing supply contribute to the crisis. He offered some possible ways Utah could address the state’s housing needs, like through rental and mortgage assistance programs or policies that prevent gentrification.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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