In November 2018, Amy Liu and Nathan Arnosti of the Brookings Institution wrote on why, rather than focusing on urban growth and density in “superstar” coastal cities (e.g. New York and San Francisco), other areas of the country would benefit from greater urbanization as well:
Policies to make it easier for more people to move to our biggest cities are worth pursuing. But it is not sufficient nor realistic to expect most low-income workers to leave their social networks or afford high-cost areas. A more strategic approach would aim to accelerate economic growth across mid-sized metro areas and micropolitan areas that are accessible to nearby rural areas. Imagine the state of Illinois not just anchored by the Chicago metro area, but by a network of other vibrant communities like Rockford, Peoria, Decatur, and Champaign-Urbana, which in turn offer opportunities for surrounding rural communities. Micropolitan areas like Traverse City, Mich., Corning, N.Y., and Kalispell, Mont. could serve as stronger centers of jobs, finance, and opportunities for rural households. Rather than sprinkle limited resources across every rural county, state and federal policymakers could target efforts to small and mid-sized markets by helping them strengthen commercial corridors and modernize existing industries.
Utah is taking their advice and taking measures to increase urban density with SB 34, a bill introduced just before the new year. From the bill’s text:
In drafting the moderate income housing element, the planning commission…for a town, may include, and for other municipalities, shall include, a recommendation to do two or more of the following…
(E) create or allow for, and reduce regulations related to, accessory dwelling units in residential zones;
(F) allow for housing in commercial and mixed-use zones;
(G) encourage higher density or moderate income residential development near major transit investment corridors;
(H) eliminate or reduce parking requirements for residential development where a resident is less likely to rely on the resident’s own vehicle, such as residential development near major transit investment corridors or senior living facilities;
(I) allow for single room occupancy developments;
(J) preserve existing moderate income housing;
Sections A through D of the bill are already law, and include provisions requiring local governments to “rezone for densities…to assure the production of moderate income housing” and other similar policies. These new provisions (E through J) take a page from California Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 827 and SB 50 (the former of which died in committee last year) by increasing density near transit areas.
The removal of parking requirements is another reform that’s gaining popularity. San Francisco recently did away with parking requirements entirely, and Houston is reducing its requirements as well.
Finally, increasing the opportunity for auxiliary dwelling units or ADU (also called “mother-in-law apartments”) is another common-sense reform that, while being relatively modest in the grand scheme of things, increases housing supply and provides landowners the opportunity to gain some extra income while increasing housing choice.
From Tony Semerad in The Salt Lake Tribune:
As Utah’s population grows and companies in communities such as [State Senator Jacob] Anderegg’s hometown of Lehi continue to recruit well-paid workers from out of state, the senator said, “high school seniors graduating from Lehi High School can’t even afford to rent an apartment once they’re out on their own and stay in Lehi. So this is a serious issue we’ve got to deal with.
“I don’t think the government can solve this problem,” he said. “But I do think government could be a huge catalyst in helping solve the problem, in partnership with good developers and lending institutions.” [Emphasis added]
Again, this just adds to the list of options from which municipalities can choose to update their housing plans (so there’s no guarantee they’ll choose E through J), but they’re still excellent options that make it possible for non-“superstar” cities to grow and prosper.