SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – On Wednesday, January 12, Utah’s soon-to-be tallest high rise broke ground in downtown Salt Lake City. The building – called the Astra Tower – will be home to 372 luxury residences spread amongst 42 floors. Upon hearing the news regarding Astra Tower’s impending arrival, Utahns had a wide variety of reactions.
Some were excited at the prospect of a growing city, others were concerned about the high-rise blocking their view of the Wasatch Front, and others were concerned about the apparent increase in luxury units despite the already existing affordable housing crisis in our state.
So how will the new luxury units affect housing in Salt Lake City?
It depends on who you ask.
According to Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition, more luxury apartments could present an issue for Utah’s already tight housing market – and the subsequent lack of affordable options.
“The more we see the naturally occurring housing inventory being snatched up, it just puts a bigger demand on housing that needs subsidy,” she says.
And Utah is already in the midst of a housing crisis. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Beehive State is short over 45,000 affordable rental units. And Rollins says this issue might be exacerbated by the addition of new luxury options.
She says that the high rent costs associated with the luxury apartment lifestyle and related amenities might cause qualified renters to walk away and seek a less expensive option.
“Those people are living under their means, in some ways, but it’s also taking the inventory that somebody could afford and pushing them down into living in substandard housing,” she says.
Rosie Bayne, a local realtor, agrees. She says that, even for independently owned rental properties, the exorbitant prices of luxury rentals lead to increases across the rental market because landlords feel they are leaving money on the table if they keep prices low.
“These luxury units are going to influx every unit, even the mom-and-pop unit that’s not in great condition,” she says. “If you can make more money, why would you not?”
But according to Paul Smith, Executive Director of the Utah Apartment Association, it’s not the luxury apartments that are leading to rising rent costs, it’s local opposition – both on a governmental and resident level – to the construction of high-density housing.
“All prices go up – at the top, in the middle, and in the lower portion – because cities are not allowing builders to build enough housing units. That’s the real issue,” he says. “City councils and mayors get a lot of pressure from their constituents to oppose new development and to oppose high-density development, which brings down cost.”
Smith also argues that a luxury clientele exists in our growing state, so it’s important to meet the growing demand for high-end housing with adequate supply.
But the issue is, catering to luxury clientele, Rollins says, isn’t reflective of the income levels of the majority of Utahns.
“Because we’re a tourism state, we have a lot of service jobs,” she says. “That is really the core of it, is the fact that we don’t have the housing that our economy needs.”
According to a report compiled by Stacker and based on data collected by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most common jobs in Salt Lake City are in customer service, general and operations management, retail, and fast food, hinting that many of our jobs might be below the housing wage for available apartment options.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, on average, customer service representatives make $16.57 per hour in Utah, retail workers make $12.95, fast food employees make $9.94, and general and operations managers make $33.42. The average Utah one-bedroom housing wage – which is about $16.71 – renders a majority of those holding Utah’s most common jobs unable to afford a unit on their earnings alone.
So how do we solve this problem?
Rollins says the first step is more investment in affordable housing on part of our state government. It’s also important to work to develop laws that are more balanced in terms of favoring both landlord and tenant. Currently, Rollins says, laws favor landlords so much that rentals can financially cripple individuals who are already in dire straits.
Another step, she says, is to bring more higher paying jobs – unlike the tourism-oriented service work currently available – to the communities where rental prices are skyrocketing. She cites the building of a St. George warehouse – that was permitted to build in the area only if they provided their lowest paid employee with a housing wage – as an example of the type of corporate investment in local communities that might help solve the problem.
“We’re investing in the people coming here, but we’re not invested in the people who are on the ground trying to help these people have a positive experience,” she says.