Hole in the housing market: empty-nesters’ quest for a home in the ‘missing middle’Dec 10, 2019 12:46PM ● By Zak Sonntag
Ron Hilton, rezone applicant, with application posters. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)
By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]
Holladay’s missing middle
Growth is great. At least, that’s the sense given by politicians and business leaders who tout (and take credit for) the state’s recent economic gains. Utah’s GDP is growing at the second fastest rate of all states in the nation, according to recent reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing a remarkable 4% growth increase in 2018.
But growth is a double-edged blade. Economic increases correlate with population increases, so more jobs means more people, and more people means, well, yet more people, with Utah’s highest-in-the-nation per-capita birthrate. This is a large factor in the state’s current housing crisis, in which a rocketing demand has pushed mortgages and rents rapidly out of reach of middle-income families. This is evident especially in Holladay, where the median new-home sale price is third highest in the state.
The solution to the crisis, we’re told, is to build more households. Yet even as we experience a “building boom” across the county and state, prices continue to rise, which has sent policy makers in urgent search for solutions to keep prices in check. Lately, the debate has focused on what city planners call the “missing middle:” smaller, single-family homes, whose size and price range lands between condos and apartments at one end and double-story family homes at the other.
This middle range is a vital component to housing markets, planners argue, because it helps families at both ends of the generational spectrum — both young, starter families, along with older empty-nesters, each looking for smaller-sized homes in a reasonable price range.
The issue was thrown into relief recently in Holladay when the City Council weighed the merits of a rezone application that would allow a property zoned to accommodate two homes to instead accommodate five.
Ron and Melissa Hilton raised six boys in Holladay. The boys grew, graduated from high school and then, one by one, spread their wings and left the nest, the last departing earlier this year.
The hallways stood quiet. The bedrooms lay vacant. The swing hung still in the yard.
“We felt like we were rattling around in there. It was more space than we needed. We wanted to downsize and down-cost because we’ll be retiring and on a fixed income before long,” said Ron, a computer engineer. “The problem is we want to stay in Holladay, and there’s none of the smaller, single-story homes in our price range. [Available housing] jumps from $300,000 to $700,000. There’s nothing in between.”
For the Hiltons, the solution was clear: buy a bigger lot.
They sold their home and moved less than a mile away onto an acre-sized plot on Murray Holladay Road, where they now live under the shade of a giant sycamore in a sagging, historic home, whose original brick was laid in 1895.
Although the arrangement is temporary.
They bought the land with the intention to subdivide the deep “flag pole” property and build up to six single-story homes.
“We couldn’t find the type of home we wanted, so we figured we’d build it. But we also liked the idea of creating the opportunity for others in our same situation,” Ron said.
To pull it off, they needed to rezone the land. But when they sought approval in January 2019, the planning commission bulldozed the proposal, saying six homes was completely out of the question.
The Hiltons went back to the drawing board and came up with another proposal with a reduced figure of four homes. But the commission again refused to budge.
Melissa, whose father taught math at Olympus High School, begged the commission to reconsider. “We want a Holladay that is rooted in the past but looking to the future. There are many empty-nesters who don’t have small-home options. So the fundamental question is, are you going to ask us to go away and look somewhere else?”
Many neighbors, however, see it differently. Kevin Andersen lives two doors down from the Hiltons and believes unbendingly that the rezone violates principals in the general plan. Andersen, a private attorney, argued before the planning commission in October against the re-zone.
“The general plan calls for ‘supporting stable neighborhoods,’ and changing zones like this doesn’t achieve that. The plan says projects need to be accommodated according to current zones,” Andersen said. “And look at the number of people, not just the number of houses. Their trash cans will have to be stacked in my front of my yard. When people come to visit, they’ll be parking in front of my house.”
Lizz Corrigan, the Hiltons’ neighbor to the east, agreed with Andersen, telling the commission, “Before we purchased our home, we called the city and they assured us zoning is difficult to change, but now [the city] is thinking about putting land use over people and communities.”
Other neighbors also expressed worry over safety. Drew Nebeker told the commission this neighborhood is being affected by more car traffic. “Traffic has increased and we recently saw an accident. A bicyclist was hit because the driver could not see past the cars parked in front of the terraces. This is now a very dangerous street.”
The Hiltons, however, see their plans in keeping with the stylistic character of the neighborhood with single-story homes, but also provides a natural transition from the medium-density zone of the Holladay Village to the low-density residential area to the east.
Residents nonetheless expressed skepticism that such developments would stop there.
“It sounds like it’s a benign request, but I urge the commissioners to look at this big picture,” said Clark Richards, a neighbor. “Because it adds up. A little bit more [density], and little bit more, then a little bit more. That’s not what this community wants.”
Ron said he wasn’t asking for anything but fair treatment. He pointed out that a similar home on a similarly sized lot across the street is zoned in a way that allows for precisely the type of project he’s pursuing. “It’s directly across the street. I’m just asking to have the same zone as my neighbor across the street,” he said.
Andersen doesn’t agree. “He knew exactly what he got when he got it. If he wanted a home with that zoning, then he should have bought a home in that zone. Don’t buy a place and then go mess up the zoning. That’s why you have a master plan, to have stability and predictability in neighborhoods.”
Inconsistency in the general plan
By the time the council met in November to issue the final declaration on the Hilton proposal, it had been over a year since the Hiltons started putting together a proposal that, in their words, would allow them to stay in “the city we’ve always known and always loved.”
The council did not take the decision lightly.
Councilmember Sabrina Petersen, who represents District 1 where the property is located, said, “This has been on my mind heavily. It’s been on my mind constantly. I represent both sides of this. I represent the people for and against. I know them personally and they are all really great people.”
What makes the decision so difficult, Councilmember Steve Gunn of District 4 said, is “that there seems to be an inconsistency with our general plan. On the one hand, it says ‘future growth should be accommodated by current zoning,’ but elsewhere it notes that new development should be accommodated by using unclaimed parcels ‘where possible,’ and that growth should be promoted around existing transportation corridors, which this property is near. I think the planning commission misinterpreted the general plan.”
Councilmember Paul Fotheringham seconded Gunn’s point. “I believe when you look at the general plan in its entirety, it’s a very reasonable request, because it’s along one of our major transportation corridors,” Fotheringham said. “The thing mattered to me was: does this zone change make sense in the context of the zones already there? Is this request unreasonable? No, because it’s surrounded by R2-10’s [the zone designation sought by the Hiltons].”
Councilmembers Gunn and Fotheringham voted in support of the rezone.
But then Councilmember Brett Graham of District 2 said, “I came to a different conclusion. When it comes to zoning, a few feet do matter. This is the right project in the wrong location,” Graham said. “Something must meet a high bar to overrule a unanimous decision by a planning commission.”
The vote was brought to a tie by Petersen, who explained, “I’m not pro-development or anti-development. I am for appropriate development. And with the zoning that this parcel has, it already allows for what is appropriate density,” Petersen said.
The deciding vote was in the hands of Mayor Robert Dahle.
“This decision has been involved and difficult,” Dahle said. “We’ve spent a lot of time digging into this issue. There is justification on both sides. But I tend to fall more with Councilmember Graham. I have no problem with this concept. But it’s in the wrong place.”
Speaking with Ron Hilton a few days after the council’s decision, he said, “We’ve been failing at every turn. After three separate rejections, we’re starting to get kind of philosophical about the whole thing. We keep trudging along.”
The city is expected to make amendments to the land-use chapter of the general plan next year, in accordance with a new state law, SB 34, which is requiring cities to take proactive steps to address the state-wide housing shortage. The amendments could make rezone proposals likelier to succeed. Also, by that time the city will have three new council members, which tempts the Hiltons to stick around and see if their favor turns.
“We don’t know exactly what we’ll do,” Ron said, “but we haven’t given up hope completely for this property.”