Housing market: How to find affordable housing, laws interfere |Opinion

Earlier this week, the White House released a plan to address the “housing supply gap,” a problem that many Utahns and Americans can relate to, as housing costs have reached unprecedented levels in Utah and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, many local governments are pursuing policies that limit the supply of housing, driving up costs even further.

The small town of Big Water in southern Utah is one example, with laws that exacerbate the housing affordability crisis. Specifically, Big Water prohibits new houses smaller than 2,000 square feet in several parts of town. This prohibition both prevents people of modest means from living in homes they can afford and limits the supply of housing. My public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, sent a letter to Big Water officials on May 13 calling on them to end the ban on modestly sized homes.

One Big Water resident learned about the town’s ban on modest homes the hard way. Chrissy Rochford lives in a small RV park in Big Water with her dog, Riley, and her horse, Sundance. She needs more space for her animals, so Rochford asked the town for permission to have a 1,600-square-foot home on Yankee Doodle Drive. But, because of the prohibition on modestly sized homes, town officials will not allow her to live on that lot in a home smaller than 2,000 square feet.

Rochford cannot afford a house that large, and she doesn’t want one that large either. In other parts of town, Rochford would only need 1,200 square feet (still an irrational requirement because it has nothing to do with health and safety), but none of those lots have adequate outdoor space for Sundance. So, Big Water has left Rochford with no good options.

The town’s 2,000-square-foot minimum is an irrational law that serves no reasonable government interest, such as preserving public safety or promoting general welfare. Instead, town officials readily admit that the sole reason for the law is propping up property values in specific areas around town. Several current town council members live in such parts of Big Water.

Making matters worse, Big Water’s median household income is just $42,391 and 6% of the town’s residents live below the poverty line. So, it isn’t just Rochford being blocked from finding reasonably priced housing.

Unfortunately, various zoning laws throughout the state are limiting the supply of housing and worsening the affordability crisis in Utah. A November 2021 study found that Utah has a 45,000-unit housing shortfall, which has led to price increases across the board. The effect on Utahns has been palpable, with a majority saying they do not think they could afford their current homes if they were looking to buy again today.

Absurd minimum square footage laws like this are not unique to Big Water or to the state of Utah. The Institute for Justice has fought back against similar ordinances, including a 1,150-square-foot requirement in Calhoun, Georgia, which is preventing a nonprofit that builds affordable housing from breaking ground on new homes there. Additionally, Highland Lake, Alabama’s, 1,800-square-foot requirement forced a family to move out of town after their 1,250-square-foot home burned down and town officials refused to allow them to rebuild it — or even to build a 1,550-square-foot home.

Big Water’s minimum square footage requirement is not just bad policy; it may also violate both the U.S. and Utah Constitutions. In a 1995 ruling, the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed that zoning laws that “do not rationally promote the public health, safety, morals and welfare” are prohibited. Throughout the country, much more modest minimum square footage requirements have been struck down on similar grounds, such as a 1,300-square-foot minimum law in Connecticut.

At a time when housing costs are skyrocketing, government officials should be looking for ways to allow more housing, not using arbitrary and self-serving laws to shut people of modest means out of the housing market altogether. It’s time for Big Water to allow little homes.  

Bob Belden is an attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.