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Affordable housing is an issue usually associated with liberal cities and liberal politicians. So, in conservative Utah, is there a conservative approach to meeting the needs of citizens who can’t afford high rent or high home prices?

Is there a market-based approach to ensuring that a variety of housing choices are available to meet the needs of people across the income spectrum?

At a discussion hosted by the Utah Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) Monday afternoon, three conservative thought leaders argued that conservative ideology can produce solutions for the affordable housing crisis.

Dina Blaes, former CNU board member, moderated the panel discussion at the Salt Lake City Main Public Library featuring Jonathan Coppage, visiting senior fellow, R-Street Institute; Derek Monson, director of public policy, The Sutherland Institute; and Heath Hansen, legislative correspondent for Sen. Mike Lee.

The event was billed as “a discussion among leading conservative thinkers on the ideological and regulatory obstacles and opportunities associated with achieving greater housing choices – affordability, type and mix – in a red state.

“Recent reports indicate a shortage of 43,000 affordable housing units in Utah. Are Utah’s predominantly conservative values contributing to the shortage or are they the foundation for a solution?”

Well, Coppage, Monson and Hansen argued that voluntary collaboration and market-based approaches, without heavy-handed government mandates and intervention, can provide more choices and diversity in housing.

In fact, they said, in some cases heavy government intervention in the form of planning and zoning regulations have reduced developer interest in building affordable housing.

“Conservatives need to get in this discussion,” said Coppage. He said a close-knit, walkable community with a range of housing choices is a strong and sustainable community, both fiscally and environmentally.  “It shouldn’t be a hard issue for conservatives to embrace.”

Hansen said the choice between government solutions and individual solutions is a false choice. Too often, the middle parts of society – family, church, neighborhoods, clubs, non-profits, communities and work/employment -- are ignored in the search for solutions to society’s problems. Those parts of society can play a role in solving the affordable housing crisis.

Monson said markets and communities should drive outcomes, not impractical regulatory regimes. If developers and communities collaborate and work together from the outset, communities will be more likely to get the housing options they desire.

He said the federal Dodd-Frank law changed the banking industry in ways that make financial institutions less willing to finance affordable housing.

Coppage said there was a lot of organic affordable housing and mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods many years ago before the federal government got involved. In addition, citizens who don’t want high-density housing in their neighborhoods have used local planning and zoning ordinances to preclude affordable housing and mixed-use developments.

Governments need to ease up on regulations and mandates that prevent affordable housing from being constructed, he said. Cities should allow people to build what they want in their own neighborhoods, including accessory dwelling units in backyards, and micro-housing. Providing low-income people vouchers to find housing in the private housing market is better than government building housing, Coppage said. He also said more in-fill housing would be developed if government taxed the value of land, not buildings.

Hansen said the income tax mortgage interest deduction has also hurt affordable housing and benefitted wealthy people because the bigger and more expensive the house, the larger the tax break is.

The Congress for the New Urbanism encourages a planning and development approach in cities and towns that produces walkable districts, close proximity of housing and shopping, and outstanding public spaces.

For more information about Congress for New Urbanism, Utah Chapter , click here.