New apartments in Salt Lake County are coming, but not where they’re needed most
These days, navigating the streets of Salt Lake City can feel like a twisted maze of scaffolding, traffic cones, and heavy machinery. It seems like every time you turn a corner, entire blocks have been temporarily shut down to make room for the construction of new apartment buildings and the infrastructure needed to support them. And while Salt Lake City residents are seeing new apartments pop up seemingly overnight, residents of neighboring cities in the county are having a very different experience.
In 2021, 64.6 percent of apartments under construction in Salt Lake County were located in Salt Lake City. While Salt Lake City is the largest city in the state, current residents of the capital city make up just 16.9 percent of the county population.
It’s unsurprising that Salt Lake City, with its concentrated job core and well-developed transit network, leads the state in demand for high-density housing units. However, the historically low vacancy rates across the county suggest demand for apartments in suburban neighborhoods is also high, and these areas may be under-building.
“In 2021, the Salt Lake County vacancy rate dropped below 2 percent, the lowest rate on record, and the tenth consecutive year, the rate has been below 4 percent,” says a 2022 report from the Kem C. Gardener Policy Institute.
According to experts, a 5-6 percent vacancy rate represents a sufficient housing supply. The problem is obvious: there aren’t enough apartments being built to accommodate for demand in other cities throughout Salt Lake County.
“All types of apartment communities-size and age-and all submarkets throughout the county are experiencing full occupancy,” continues the report. “Due to the limited number of vacant units, rental rates are rising by double digits. In addition, strong economic and demographic conditions will boost demand for rental units over the next three years.”
According to the same report, the rapid construction of new apartments will outpace the growth of renters in the downtown area, creating an oversupply and higher vacancy rates. The report predicts this effect will likely be limited to the downtown area apartments, those in suburban areas of the county will continue to be in short supply.
James A. Wood, author of the 2022 report, writes, “The Salt Lake City market is not a substitute for the county market; that is, suburban renters, in most cases, can not or will not move to a vacant unit in the city due to the much higher rental rates in the city.”
According to Wood’s report, rents in the downtown area will be priced at least 30 percent higher than rents in the county, creating continued demand for apartments in suburban areas where rent is more affordable.
“The county doesn’t dictate to cities what kind of zoning, growth, or density they can have. That is a local decision, and we respect their local decision-making authority. Some cities, however, have more of an appetite to approve high or medium-density housing,” says Salt Lake County Council Member, Aimee Winder Newton. “Salt Lake City, being the largest city with the most residents, tends to approve those types of projects.”
While Salt Lake City’s large population encourages the construction of new apartments, the second and third largest cities in the county were far behind in construction of new apartments. West Valley City, home to 11.8 percent of the county’s residents, had 3.6 percent of the county’s apartments under construction in 2021. With 9.9 percent of the county’s residents, West Jordan added only 3 percent of new apartment units to the county.
West Jordan passed an ordinance in 2013 that states the city should include a city-wide ratio of 77 percent single-family homes and 23 percent multi-family homes. To reach this goal, the city has prioritized the construction of single-family homes.
It’s common for suburban communities to prioritize single-family homes over multi-family development, as is being done in West Jordan. New apartments cause residents to worry about increasing traffic, decreasing home values, or changing neighborhood aesthetics.
While traffic can increase when new developments come to an area, studies show residents of apartments actually add fewer cars to a city per household than residents of single-family homes. Traffic concerns can be mitigated most effectively when apartment units are added near reliable public transit options.
“Sound planning principles demonstrate that higher density should be along transit lines and freeways because that provides the least amount of traffic impact to the surrounding neighborhoods,” says Newton.
When a new apartment complex is proposed, the impact on home values is also a concern for residents of suburban areas. For many middle-class families, a large portion of financial security comes from homeownership and the appreciation of home values. Because of this, anything that could threaten that value is cause for serious concern.
While apartment complexes have garnered a reputation for decreasing home values in an area, a 2021 University of Utah study found this reputation to be unfounded. The study evaluated homes in suburban areas in the Salt Lake Valley and found the addition of high-density housing has no impact on value.
Rather than causing a financial hit to communities, a sufficient supply of high-density housing can boost local business and tax revenue. Companies often move into areas with a concentrated population that can become a large customer base. Employers also have an easier time staffing their businesses in areas with a sufficient supply of apartments.
While residents of suburban neighborhoods often move to the area because they like the aesthetics of low-density housing, new apartment units don’t have to change the aesthetics of communities. Cities can increase housing density, provide more units to house renters, and maintain the area’s look.
“This is a great opportunity for things like a two or fourplex to be built near existing neighborhoods, especially when it looks like it fits in with the neighborhood,” says Newton. “Think of a beautiful, very large home that is designed in a way to hide that it’s actually a townhome for four units. Those types of projects can fit nicely into an existing neighborhood.”
While many communities in the Salt Lake Valley have long favored the development of single-family homes over new apartments, the area’s changing population requires a shift in thinking. High-density housing makes room for incoming residents while limiting the impact on traffic congestion, air quality, and cost of living. Every Salt Lake County community will need quickly to increase its supply of apartment units in order to keep up with demand.