According to a US Department of Labor study, between 1934 and 1936, families were spending 32 percent of their income on housing. Today, housing costs continue to account for over 30 percent of the average American’s income, and those in the lowest 20 percent of income earners now pay almost 40 percent of their income towards housing.
Utah has not been able to escape this trend of housing eating up large portions of individuals’ incomes. From 2020 to 2021, the median price of a home in Utah increased by 24.6 percent. In addition to this statewide increase, three Utah cities — Provo, Ogden, and Salt Lake City — have found their place among the top one hundred most overpriced housing markets in the nation.
High housing prices do not just financially burden families but are an indicator of a local government policy that has a long history of perpetuating racism and inequality. This policy is zoning. Stringent zoning regulations are the primary culprit for high housing prices and a lack of housing availability.
Zoning refers to a set of laws that inhibit how private property can and cannot be used in certain geographic areas. While at first, this policy might make sense as a way to make sure residents are afforded a high degree of health and safety, this longstanding policy does the exact opposite.
Zoning regulations, since their inception, have been used to group together low-income families and individuals belonging to minority groups in ways that separate and exclude them from higher-income areas. This creates large disparities in income, health, and education as this segregationist policy removes the aforementioned groups from safer areas of the city, and places their housing near hazardous areas and limits their access to good jobs, schools, and public services.
Clearly, current zoning laws must be remedied. However, abolishing zoning, which is the ultimate goal, is a large lift and one that Utah’s local governments are not amenable to. Yet, there is a solution that presents a compromise. It comes in the form of policies that allow for the implementation and enforcement of deed restrictions.
A deed restriction is an agreement by and between property owners that dictates, without zoning, how pieces of land may be used. Deed restrictions empower communities to effectively opt out of non-zoning, writing their own land-use rules for their own neighborhoods.
Deed restrictions present a significant improvement over zoning for a number of reasons.
First, deed restrictions only cover relatively small parts of the cities they are enacted in. This means that parts of cities not wanting the privately determined restrictions in place can operate without them while communities that do may operate under agreeable deed restrictions.
Second, deed restrictions are optional and not mandated by a government entity. This fact in itself separates deed restrictions from zoning. In a deed restriction, if the rules are stricter than what a potential owner of the property would want to engage in or are not strict enough, they may simply pursue purchasing a different property.
Third, deed restrictions can vary with preferences different communities may hold. Deed restrictions offer a high level of flexibility that stringent zoning laws do not. This flexibility is furthered by the fact that deed restrictions have a life span. This means that they will eventually expire and, thus, will allow new agreements to be formed by new owners who may hold different preferences.
Lastly, deed restrictions can increase housing density. This is important because housing density increases available housing. This influx of homes can reduce housing prices overall as buyers have increased options.
Such a policy can transform the Utah housing market from a seller’s market that is gouging prospective homebuyers to a buyer’s market where these individuals are taken care of. Deed restrictions help ensure that everyone has an opportunity to own a home in a good neighborhood located close to public amenities and high-paying jobs.