Southern Utah city forms committee to find solutions to housing shortage

Affordable housing has not been a high priority for the city of Ivins – but now the $2 billion Black Desert mega-resort is about to hire thousands of employees.

(Trent Nelson |The Salt Lake Tribune) Residential developments in Ivins, Utah, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. The average price for a home sold in Ivins in April was $725,500 for buyers, according to the Washington County Board of Realtors.

Ivins • Nestled in the majestic shadow of Red Mountain, real estate prices in Ivins are too high for many people who want to live in the city, located 15 kilometers northwest of St. George.

The median price for a home sold in Ivins in April was $725,500, according to the Washington County Board of Realtors. That's a hurdle considering the median income for a family of four in the county is $83,900, which is only enough for a $390,000 loan, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Ivins hasn't necessarily taken this gap seriously; many residents oppose higher housing density, and the city's affordable housing committee has been stagnant for several years. But that's changing now – with the $2 billion Black Desert mega-resort taking shape in Ivins and expected to employ more than 2,500 workers.

“We recognize that we desperately need workforce housing,” said Ivins Mayor Chris Hart. “Where are all these workers going to live?”

To address the problem, the city has reactivated the Affordable Housing Committee and tasked its eight members with taking a close look at what Ivins can do to alleviate the problem.

Starter houses versus high-rise buildings

Council member Sharon Gillespie, who chairs the committee, said affordable housing is not a problem unique to Ivins or Utah. “But that doesn't mean we can't work to address or solve the problem here in Ivins,” she said.

At first glance, Ivins officials' renewed enthusiasm for affordable housing seems at odds with residents who have expressed anger in the past at the prospect of the city becoming a haven for denser housing. For example, in a 2022 survey, 70% of residents said they opposed more townhouses and condos, and 81% opposed additional apartment complexes and other rental housing.

Gillespie, however, sees things differently. She noted that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox's affordable housing mantra in 2022 is focused on building more high-rises and condos. The governor is now calling for building more single-family homes — 35,000 more over the next five years to bolster supply and lower housing prices.

“What we need in Ivins for families to be able to afford to live here is not a high-rise apartment or a condo,” Gillespie said. “From what I understand, that's what the residents of Ivins need. [said in the survey] that they don't want. That's why I'm grateful that the governor has shifted his focus to first homes this year.”

During discussions with developers earlier this month, Cox expressed excitement over the Utah State Legislature's recent passage of HB572, which allows the state to use its budget surplus to reduce the cost of loans developers need to build entry-level homes.

The law created a $300 million fund to provide low-interest loans to builders through their banks or credit unions. In return, builders must agree that 60 percent of the homes they build with the fund must be primary homes.

No overnight solutions

Ivins officials want to add more tools to their affordable housing toolbox. One option the committee will consider is establishing a community land trust that would keep housing prices low by selling only the home to middle-income buyers while retaining ownership of the land underneath.

Typically, a nonprofit organization or the local government owns the land, leases it for 99 years, and caps the price the home can be sold for, ensuring the property remains affordable.

Ivins would have to either buy land or have land donated to the city to create its own land trust. So far, the city has neither land nor money from donors, but it could decide to spend its own money on an affordable housing development. The city government is currently in the preliminary stages of finding land.

Gillespie said the committee is also working with the Ivins Planning Commission to refine regulations and increase the number of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in Ivins. ADUs, which can be either attached to or detached from a residence, can help buyers obtain financing based on the potential of rental income to help them pay a mortgage.

Committee members have diverse backgrounds and expertise, including experience in architecture, development, social work and municipal land use planning.

Although the problem of affordable housing in the city is urgent, Gillespie preaches patience.

“This problem did not arise overnight,” she said, “and it will not be fixed overnight. It will take years to fix.”

Anna Harden

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