Experts discuss concerns from perspective of leaders, everyday residents

People across the country are facing a wide range of challenges, including affording housing and dealing with inflation.
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Posted at 1:59 PM, Jun 12, 2024

The economy is one of the most important topics for Americans ahead of the November election.

Scripps News Salt Lake City gathered a group of experts to address topics such as historically low unemployment and growing wages.

“It's the first time that I've known in my 18 years in working in economic development in the state of Utah that the things that people are talking about at work are also the same things that people are talking about at home," said Derek Miller, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance. "Can I afford to pay my rent? Can I afford to go to the grocery store because the food prices are so high? And especially if I'm a dual-income family, what am I going to do about child care?”

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Other challenges people are facing across the country include inflation and housing.

“Housing is a hot topic right now, you know, mainly because of the interest rates and the fact that the interest rates have been so high, but the prices aren't coming down. You know, we still see prices keep rising,” said Maralee Jensen with Axia Home Loans.

Economist Robert Spendlove added: “I just talked to someone that has a mortgage rate of 1.75%. So going from around 2% or 3% to 7% is a big change in a quick period. Now if you look long-term, historically, going back to the 1960s, we've been at these levels before, but not for a long time.”

Shawn Teigen, the president of the Utah Foundation, added: "Part of the problem, though, is that when rates are at that level, then you can maybe get into a bidding war on a house. Because, yeah, my house payment's not gonna be that high, it's not that big of a deal, but then suddenly the rates come back up and if you don't have a house, if you don't have some equity already, it's really hard to break into homeownership."

“Today, homeownership is an unattainable dream for many people my age," said Salt Lake City Councilwoman Eva Lopez Chavez. "I represent Gen Z — the youngest-ever elected City Council member, and I think it's something that we have to consider. I think we see a demand for housing. District 4 is made up of 84% renters. We see less and less housing opportunities."

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"If you look back over the last 30 or so years, Utah's seen some of the highest appreciation of the country, only rivaled by close-by Colorado and Montana. And Salt Lake City is Denver and Austin, but really we're at the top of this home price appreciation," said Teigen.

Fewer housing opportunities have a trickle-down effect. It can lead to strains in other areas, including child care.

“Sometimes where the parents are debating the fact that they have to pay either rent, car payment or child care, but I feel that if we focus on providing good quality child care to parents, we are going to find innovative ways to make child care affordable," said Luis Su Martin, an administrator for Adventure Time Preschool.

In response to a question about a waiting list, he said: "Yes. A lot of people sign in, but sometimes we don't have the staff and people. Rotation is super slow sometimes because wages are too low sometimes, so they just might work somewhere else."

Chavez said: "We need our families to succeed, to see our cities, to see Utah succeed. We saw more and more in the last four years families moving out of our downtown and moving out of our city because they felt unsafe, they felt it was unaffordable, and because they felt that the public school system was not supportive of that. And we just saw four schools close in Salt Lake City in the last year. As a response to that, I'm proud to say we're building back. We see that as a call to action as our city to not be afraid of it."

Jensen added: “It touches my heart as a working mom. You know, my husband and I worked while raising our children, so child care was a big deal. I remember going through those trials and those hard days when the kids weren't happy and you're trying to struggle with day care and so forth."

In reference to Chavez, Jensen continued: "I love that you would be thoughtful and pressing forward enough to come into the home and trying to be sympathetic or empathetic enough to understand the measure and the compound that this will create in the economy and in the workforce."

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Chavez replied: "When we talk about day cares, we're talking about families. And to produce elements that help build better families, give them the economic opportunities to thrive, whether it's a city, a suburban area, rural — wherever they choose, it's to give them that opportunity. But what we're really talking about is human capital. Utah's economy is built off of a beautiful community and the ability to create human capital that builds us philanthropy, builds us the social capital to come together."

Luis addressed Chavez, saying: "I think what you just said is just sums up like the whole purpose. That's why I think it's so important to make sure we're developing these children, kids' skills for the future because they're the foundation."

Some of the panelists felt that while there should be a focus on challenges, there should also be a focus on the positive.

“We should always be looking at how we get the roadblocks out of the way," Miller said. "But let's put it in context that Utah has had its most prosperous decade and we're still on very solid footing, and we're still one of the fastest job growth states in the country and we still have one of the lowest unemployment rates. So let's not get too dour."

Teigen added: “Things are going really well. We are grumpy though. I would hate to be the person in one of those states that hasn't had 10 years of a really great economy like Robert was talking about. I'd hate to be in one of those states that was struggling before and now they're really struggling because they're seeing the same prices, the same price increases at the grocery store and services in other places.”

"The hard thing now is goods. Inflation has come back down, at least the prices aren't going up anymore, food and energy, but now the inflation is moving over to services," Spendlove said. "So services inflation is much higher than headline inflation. Housing inflation is still too high. So what we're seeing is kind of a shift. It started off as goods with a supply chain breakdown. Now it's moving to services ... Everything other than goods. Whether it's a CPA or an attorney or a barber, you just go to the barbershop, it's much more expensive than it was."

"But some of them, like Walmart and Target, are talking about lowering prices. So it'll be interesting to see if we actually feel that when we go to the grocery store and get a receipt and be like, 'Oh, is this really lower?'" said Teigen.

Spendlove added: "If you look at the economy, the economy's doing OK. Unemployment is low, jobs are plentiful. We're seeing wage increases. But it's that impact of inflation that people are really struggling with. And they're upset because they hear politicians saying the inflation has gone away, the inflation is back to normal. What people are focused on is not the inflation — it's the level of prices. And prices are up 20% in the last four years, and they're not going back down. And so people are trying to adjust to this new reality of higher prices. So I think politicians and policymakers and leaders need to acknowledge how people feel right now. We need to be honest about it and say, 'Now how do we address it?'"

Tiegen responded: "For the first time ever — is this right? — consumer confidence is lower in Utah than the nation at large, which is just, it's bonkers to me. I don't understand it."'

Miller chimed in: "A lot of it is not necessarily the facts; it's a feeling."