Brian Rudd stands inside the Murphy Lane home that he and others are building with the help of the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah's Mutual Self-Help Program funding. Crews just recently finished work on the roof of his future home, and Rudd anticipates that they'll be done with the project by mid-May. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

For more than 10 years, Grand County has grappled with the reality that the growth of its population and economy has outpaced the growth of its affordable housing stock and infrastructure.

In a step that one county official calls an “unprecedented commitment” to solving the problem, the Grand County Council is meeting bimonthly with the Grand County Planning Commission for the foreseeable future to focus on solutions.

Prior to the county council’s regular meetings, the two entities convened for the first time this month in a newly established joint housing workshop, and have begun charting a course forward.

“More than anything, it’s the spirit of the conversation in these workshops that makes me hopeful,” Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said. “The obvious commitment our elected officials are putting toward it is truly unprecedented, I believe. It is monumental dedication to spend an hour and a half to two hours before their regular meeting focused on solving these problems.”

Housing affordability and accessibility is a problem across the entire state, and the nation. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the cost of rent in most places is higher than the median wage of their population of renters.

In Grand County, for example, the required hourly rate of full-time employment to afford a two-bedroom home at the fair market rate established by the federal government is $14.56. The median hourly income of renters here, however, is $9.74.

The problem has reached a crisis point in Moab, as critical service workers choose not to accept positions when they are unable to find affordable housing here, Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs said.

“The need for these types of professionals has only been accelerating in the last few years,” Tubbs said. “The population hasn’t grown much, but the number of visitors has.”

In a primarily tourism-driven economy, an increase in visitor numbers should be good news, but Moab is at risk of economic decline if the housing and infrastructure problems are not solved, Levine said.

“If we don’t get a handle on housing soon, it could threaten the economic success we’re having right now and the long-term vitality of the community,” he said.

A year ago, when he was newly appointed to his position in the Grand County Planning and Zoning Department, Levine worked to reinvigorate the county’s Interlocal Housing Task Force. The group of government and community members was first organized with the mandate to address the community’s housing and infrastructure problems.

The task force’s work, and the data Levine was able to provide the Grand County Council last October, set the stage for this new momentum in addressing this long-standing problem, according to Tubbs.

“Some of the data was very eye-opening,” Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon said.

During their most recent meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16, the county council and the planning commission discussed the possibility of amending the Grand County Land Use Code to facilitate the development of affordable housing. Levine put forth a work plan that divides tasks among the two bodies and assigns priorities.

Although the county adopted an affordable housing study and plan in 2009, that document addressed the context of the issue without providing legal bounds for development going forward. This will be the key to guiding wise housing and infrastructure development going forward, Tubbs said.

“It’s not usually poor planning,” she said of the reasons why cities stumble when facing junctures like these. “It’s no plan. That’s why we’re devoting the time to it.”

After more than 90 minutes spent discussing potential amendments to the land use code, the county council identified its top priorities to be the investigation of deed restrictions and buffer requirements. The Grand County Planning Commission committed to providing a better definition of “affordable housing,” as well as putting together ordinances for council approval that address accessory dwelling units, lot sizes and setbacks, and the removal of open-space requirements.

“If we take the attitude that the time to do something is now, we will move on this,” Grand County Planning Commission chair David Tubbs said. “We as a group have the burden to find an equitable solution fast.”

Levine cautioned that there are no easy answers, and appealed to the group and community members in attendance to remain positive and engaged.

“I recognize that citizens want clear answers and direct action,” Levine told the Moab Sun News. “And they deserve that. But it is not easy. We need people to remain engaged and support this process. Know that there is a process.”

Joint council-planning commission workshop to meet bimonthly

More than anything, it’s the spirit of the conversation in these workshops that makes me hopeful.