Earlier this week, the White House released a plan to fill the “housing supply gap”, a problem that many Utahans and Americans can relate to, as housing costs have reached unprecedented levels in Utah and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, many local governments pursue policies that limit the supply of housing, further driving up costs.
The small town of Big Water in southern Utah is one example, with laws exacerbating the housing affordability crisis. Specifically, Big Water is banning new homes under 2,000 square feet in several areas of the city. This prohibition both prevents people of modest means from living in affordable housing 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 asking them to end the ban on modest-sized houses.
A Big Water resident learned the hard way about the city’s ban on modest homes. 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 city for permission to have a 1,600 square foot home on Yankee Doodle Drive. But, due to the ban on modest-sized houses, the municipal authorities will not allow him to live on this land in a house of less than 2,000 square feet.
Rochford can’t afford a house that big, and she doesn’t want one either. In other parts of town, Rochford would only need 1,200 square feet (another irrational requirement as it has nothing to do with health and safety), but none of these lots have enough outdoor space for Sundance. So Big Water left Rochford with no good options.
The city’s 2,000 square foot minimum is an irrational law that serves no reasonable government interest, such as preserving public safety or promoting the general welfare. Instead, city officials readily admit that the sole reason for the law is to prop up property values in specific areas around the city. Several current city council members live in these parts of Big Water.
To make matters worse, Big Water’s median household income is only $42,391 and 6% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. So it’s not just Rochford who’s been barred from finding reasonably priced accommodation.
Unfortunately, various zoning laws across the state are limiting housing supply and compounding Utah’s affordability crisis. A study from November 2021 found that Utah has a shortfall of 45,000 homes, which has led to price increases across the board. The effect on Utahns has been palpable, with a majority saying they don’t think they could afford their current homes if they were looking to buy again today.
Absurd minimum acreage laws like this are not unique to Big Water or the state of Utah. The Institute for Justice has fought back against similar orders, including a 1,150 square foot requirement in Calhoun, GA, which prevents a non-profit organization that builds affordable housing from building new homes there. Besides, Highland Lake, Alabama, 1,800 square foot requirement forced a family out of town after their 1,250 square foot home burned down and city officials refused to allow them to rebuild it – or even build a 1,550 square foot home.
Big Water’s minimum square footage requirement isn’t just bad policy; it may also violate the constitutions of the United States and Utah. In a 1995 decision, the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed that zoning laws that “do not rationally promote public health, safety, morals, and welfare” are prohibited. Across the country, much more modest minimum square footage requirements have been waived for similar reasons, such as a 1,300 square foot minimum law in Connecticut.
At a time of skyrocketing housing prices, government officials should be looking for ways to allow more housing, not to use arbitrary, self-serving laws to completely exclude people of modest means from the housing market. It’s time for Big Water to allow small houses.
Bob Belden is an attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.