The proliferation of second homes, nightly rentals and Moab’s status as a resort town are causing a dearth of affordable housing opportunities in Grand County.
The problem, according to former Grand County Council woman and housing task force member Audrey Graham, is exacerbated by “external demand that outcompetes local income.”
Finding solutions to the situation was the topic of a panel discussion sponsored by the Grand County League of Women Voters on Monday, April 13. More than 50 people, including business owners, real estate agents, concerned citizens and county council members, attended the discussion at the Grand County Public Library.
“I was glad to see the discussion so well attended by a broad cross section of the people who live here,” Grand County Council member Jaylyn Hawks said.
Assembled panelists included city and county planners, and affordable housing providers – many of whom compared Moab and Grand County’s trajectory to that of other resort towns in the West, including Park City; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and Crested Butte, Colorado.
Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said that a lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing the community.
Levine said the problem doesn’t just affect seasonal workers and those in the tourism industry.
“Our anchor institutions are struggling to attract and retain qualified employees to meet the basic needs of our community,” he told the Moab Sun News.
Affordable housing is defined as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a family’s income. In Grand County, the median family income is $48,588, which puts the median home price of $218,000 out of range for most families.
For moderate- to lower-income families, 44 percent who own homes are “cost burdened,” or are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, while 60 percent of the renters fit into this category.
Levine said that there is also a low availability of housing that meets basic living standards in Grand County. He cited a State of Utah study which found that nearly 35 percent of all homes in the county were substandard and consisted of trailers or dilapidated homes built before 1976.
“Nobody is joking when we are talking about how severe the housing crisis is,” he said.
Levine said the county already has provisions in place to enable the construction of more affordable housing units. Those provisions include an allowance for accessory buildings that can’t be used for nightly rentals, no minimum requirements on house size, density bonuses, and an allowance for employee housing to be constructed in commercially zoned areas.
“There are locations where we can up the density,” he said. “In the past, protecting the rural character of the county was valued, but times and the needs of the community are changing.”
Levine also advocated for “inclusionary zoning” or mixed-use development that could provide different types of housing opportunities.
Moab City Planning Director Jeff Reinhart said the city has been looking into various ways to address the affordable housing issue, and that the city council has loosened requirements to allow residential use in commercially zoned areas.
“We jumped on it as soon as we identified barriers in our code,” he said.
Reinhart said that the city has planned affordable housing developments that allow greater density, and that it is looking at ways to internalize impacts through micro-units or tiny house sizes.
Moab has been following the lead of Park City, which, Reinhart said, has developed a successful model for affordable housing in the state.
“Deed restrictions are going to be paramount,” he said.
Other options being considered by the city are “linkage fees,” where a developer is charged a fee to offset the need for housing for its often low-wage employees; to a community development corporation that will give significant tax breaks to its investors.
Crested Butte Town Planner Michael Yerman said it was important that any requirements the city or county makes for affordable housing “have teeth to them,” and that if he could offer any advice it would be to “start now.”
“Put it in the code,” he said. “Make sure there aren’t ways to get around it.”
The town of Crested Butte started its affordable housing program in the 1990s and has developed stringent requirements. Eighteen percent of all homes are deed-restricted in some way, and the town requires that 60 percent of all homes be occupied by local residents.
“The town of Crested Butte is on the extreme side,” Yerman said. “We have taken a very strong stand on affordable housing.”
Yerman said he wasn’t advocating for Moab to take the same route, but he said that “every community needs to have this discussion.”
Other options for affordable housing in Grand County come from programs administered by the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah (HASU). The Mutual Self-Help Program has resulted in the construction of 140 homes.
HASU Executive Director Ben Riley said that the self-help program has been hugely successful. But once the homes are built, he said, owners can sell them for market value.
“We want to work toward more sustainable, permanent housing,” he said.
The authority also developed the multi-family unit Cinema Court Apartments, and helps people obtain vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Riley said that Cinema Court was one of the most successful projects of its kind in the state, but that the size and complexity made it very difficult.
He said his organization faced significant constraints due to its size and funding limitations, and that HUD vouchers often don’t cover the expenses of its clients.
“HUD is a huge organization that doesn’t really look at our community,” Riley said. “We are constrained by national standards.”
Emily Niehaus, panelist and executive director of the nonprofit Community Rebuilds, described her organization’s mission of putting first-time homeowners into student-built, ecologically friendly, straw-bale homes that often replace existing trailers.
“Our method of subsidization is different,” she said. “We take the grant money that runs our student education program.”
Community Rebuilds will complete its 11th home in the Moab area this summer.
Hawks said that although there are many complex factors that created the current crisis, she was impressed with the wide variety of “tools” available to help address the issues.
Levine said the community needs to have a conversation about what it wants to look like in the future and make plans accordingly. He said that the county plan was due to be updated in 2017, and he urged everyone to get involved.
“We have a political window of opportunity to address this crisis,” he said.
Moab looks to other resort towns for guidance as prices rise
We have a political window of opportunity to address this crisis.