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Do you qualify for affordable housing in the Wasatch Back? The answer might surprise you.

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Michelle Deininger
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KPCW
Reasonably priced housing in the Wasatch Back is hard to come by, but some progress is being made.

What makes housing “affordable” in the Wasatch Back and who actually qualifies for it?

If you’ve followed any discussions on affordable housing in Park City, Summit County, or Wasatch County in recent years, you’ve probably heard the same acronym over and over: AMI.

That stands for area median income. AMI is a tool local governments use to calculate things like how people’s incomes relate to real estate prices and who should get subsidized affordable housing.

AMI numbers are calculated each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on a county-by-county basis. Median is not the same as average, but rather the middle of a county’s range of incomes.

According to HUD, Salt Lake County’s AMI for a one-person household is about $72,000. In Wasatch County, that number is over $75,000, and in Summit County, it’s a whopping $94,000.

High incomes usually lead to steeper housing prices for both buyers and renters. The median sale price of a home in Summit County in May was $1.3 million. In Wasatch County, it was just over $1 million, according to real estate brokerage Redfin.

In Park City it’s even higher - the Park City Board of Realtors reported that the median sale price for a single-family home inside city limits was $3.5 million in the first quarter of 2022.

The growing lack of affordable housing is forcing local workers out of the region and into more affordable parts of the state.

Park City Community Foundation Vice President of Equity and Impact Diego Zegarra says that’s an urgent problem.

“Unless we act meaningfully and decisively in this community toward advancing the affordable housing conversation, we’re going to continue to be hollowed out over the next few years,” he says.

The impacts of the crisis are varied, from employee shortages to government’s ability to provide critical services. The Park City and Summit County councils heard last week that no local fire or law enforcement agency has more than 40% of its employees living inside Summit County. Some emergency service workers commute an hour or more to and from work, making them unable to respond quickly to crises.

James Wood is a senior fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C Gardner Policy Institute. He specializes in housing, construction, real estate and economic development.

He says the Wasatch Back’s housing prices are an outlier in Utah.

“It’s really an anomaly," says Wood. "It makes for a really difficult housing situation. The workers cannot afford to live there.”

Park City and Summit County have endeavored to offer affordable housing to local workers in recent years. At the Canyons Village, workers making less than 80% of the county’s AMI qualify for discounted rent. That means anyone making less than about $75,000 can apply for the 1,200 units expected to be available by next year.

In Park City, a to-be-built 120-unit housing project at the Homestake lot on Kearns Boulevard is intended for people earning as little as 40% of the AMI, which works out to $37,000.

Despite the progress, much more needs to be done. A recent staff report cited that Park City needs an additional 800-1,000 affordable units in the next five years. Summit County requires just under 300 new units per year.

Summit County Councilor Roger Armstrong says he sympathizes with local employers struggling to find workers, but wants the business community to be a part of the solution.

“That needs to be solved so that we have an economically healthy community, but it doesn’t mean that every business gets to survive," he says. "You’ve got to figure out the wages that you pay employees so that they can live someplace, and if there’s not enough housing, then you need to come to the table with us and help solve that. I think that’s a piece of the puzzle that we’ve ignored for a long time.”

Zegarra agrees. He says higher wages can not only make housing less of a burden for people, but can even save employers money in the long run.

“Turnover is expensive," says Zegarra. "It is cheaper to retain an employee. When we really want to look into competitive salaries, what we’re noticing is that not only is there a much higher job satisfaction, a longer time that a person stays with the organization, I’m using our example specifically, we see really long retention rates. Also attracting talent. The talent pool is much broader when we can compete at a different level.”

Last week, the Park City and Summit County councils agreed to work together on the region’s housing needs. The councils hope that will ultimately lead to more housing and greater affordability for the region’s workforce.

Sean Higgins covers all things Park City and is the Saturday Weekend Edition host at KPCW. Sean spent the first five years of his journalism career covering World Cup skiing for Ski Racing Media here in Utah and served as Senior Editor until January 2020. As Senior Editor, he managed the day-to-day news section of skiracing.com, as well as produced and hosted Ski Racing’s weekly podcast. During his tenure with Ski Racing Media, he was also a field reporter for NBC Sports, covering events in Europe.