Construction activities continued this week at the Hyatt Place Moab hotel on North Main Street. The Moab City Council voted unanimously on May 22 to begin work on a policy that could require developers of new hotels to build workforce housing for overnight lodging employees. [Moab Sun News photo]

Hotels, by their very nature, have no shortage of rooms, although the paradox in Moab is that some of them can’t accommodate their own employees.

With affordable workforce housing in short supply elsewhere, city officials are moving forward with a process to enact a policy that could require developers of new hotels to include living spaces for their staff.

City council members voted unanimously on Tuesday, May 22, to approve a resolution that jump-starts efforts to enact an “assured housing” policy within six months.

Moab City Council member Kalen Jones suggested that the move should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following the ongoing, years-long dialogue in the community about the need for more affordable housing.

In that time, he said, the city has gone through different iterations of its housing plan in consultation with local developers, and the first phase of a local assured housing feasibility analysis is widely available.

“It’s no secret that the local governments are moving in this direction,” Jones said. “I think anyone — any local developer who’s not aware of it … may not have been paying much attention.”

“Assured housing” refers to policies that require market-rate developments to provide affordable housing, either in the form of affordable units within the larger project, or through the payment of “in-lieu” fees to develop housing elsewhere.

The council’s action still allows the city’s planning department to receive and process land-use applications for new overnight accommodations. But it gives applicants formal notice that their hotel projects may be subject to still-undetermined assured housing requirements in the future, according to city staffers’ overview of the resolution.

“It’s just that they wouldn’t be finalized until the council took action on its assured housing policy,” Moab City Attorney Chris McAnany told the council.

Under the law, the resolution cannot extend beyond six months, McAnany said, and it cannot be renewed.

Council weighed different options

The resolution itself did not appear on the council’s May 22 agenda, and the public meeting was sparsely attended, with no hotel developers or industry representatives present. But McAnany said he believes the broader agenda item in question gave the public adequate notice that the issue was under consideration.

“To be clear for the record, all the resolution does is it removes the temporary land-use regulation and apprises the public that we’re considering changes to our ordinance, pursuant to the statutory procedure,” he said.

A separate and more sweeping ordinance that was included with the agenda item would have imposed a six-month freeze on city planning department reviews of land-use applications for new overnight lodging facilities.

In the minutes leading up to their vote, McAnany told council members that they have the statutory authority to approve the ordinance, or the resolution that they ultimately favored.

“One is a little more dramatic and (would have had) immediate effect on land-use applications; the other is more measured — less perhaps burdensome, or (will have a) less drastic effect on development,” he said.

While council members have the statutory authority to approve moratoriums on new development, McAnany said that city officials try to reserve them for “true emergency scenarios.”

“Because of the drastic nature of the rule, it could potentially trigger concern among those parties that would (have been) most directly affected,” he said. “A resolution is, in that respect, less draconian, because it allows development applications to continue to be reviewed, subject to the requirement that maybe the rules could change down the road.”

Jones noted that the limited availability of affordable housing in Moab has affected local government’s ability to deliver some essential services.

“Despite the city doing code revisions and allocating money for housing-related work, there’s still an issue,” he said.

The city previously adjusted its salary scale to be more competitive, he said. Yet even so, he said, Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder approached the council earlier this year with a request for a housing stipend.

“We’ve all heard that the lack of affordable housing has contributed to recruitment and retention challenges for law enforcement; emergency medical and health-care providers; and the schools …” Jones said. “And so in my mind, that is an emergency. It may be a little less direct than when a sewer plant is at capacity, but nevertheless, being chronically understaffed for those services is in my mind an emergency, and affects the ability of local governments to provide those services that citizens and visitors count on us (for).”

Moab City Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd said she has concerns about singling out one area of the private sector.

“Because all of those that (Jones) just mentioned, whether it’s teachers, whether it’s the hospital, none of those people would be affected by a flat-out moratorium,” she said.

She also worries about the potential perception that city officials are exacting something from a particular industry.

“Restaurants are notoriously low-paid; they are exempt from this — either the (housing) fund they would pay into, or the housing they would have on site,” Knuteson-Boyd said. “… I’m leaning closer to the resolution than I am to the ordinance.”

In response, Moab City Council member Rani Derasary noted that the authors of a local housing study honed in specifically on the lodging industry.

“They’d look at development and what types of uses would qualify under an assured housing policy legally, and in terms of profit margin and where it would make sense, so those uses are identified by the data,” Derasary said.

“Really important” to get things right

Moab City Planning Director Jeff Reinhart anticipates that the process to draft the city’s assured housing ordinance will be relatively simple.

“It’s all the mechanics, trying to figure out exactly which course of action we’re going to take as far as evaluating deed restrictions, et cetera,” he said. “That is going to be the complex part of this whole thing, so that’s going to take a lot of discussion with council, as well as just a lot of work on hammering that out.”

Until those proposed rules are clearer, McAnany suggested that some hotel developers might opt to sit on the sidelines.

“They might decide, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll wait a few months before I submit my application because I’m not sure where they’re going to go with this, and I don’t want to have to redesign my site — let’s say, add employee housing — if I’m not required to,'” he said. “Those are some of those practical considerations that could happen for some people.”

Derasary asked why a developer would want to move forward with a hotel site plan, knowing that there’s some ambiguity. Moab City Manager David Everitt, in turn, said he thinks the issues that arise would be specific to each application.

“You might have a smaller site where they know that no matter what, they’re not going to … have employee housing on site,” Everitt said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not they pay a fee … presuming that’s an option you approve. So for some, it may be about meeting major redesign to incorporate actual (workforce) housing on site; for some, it may just be a slight, slight scaling down of the project because they need to make it smaller…”

Reinhart said there will be some risk for some overnight lodging developers, in the sense that they won’t know specifically what the outcome of the process to develop an assured housing policy will be.

“But they certainly could still move forward through the process,” Reinhart said.

Moab City Council member Karen Guzman-Newton questioned whether the city could finish the process within two months.

“It’s theoretically possible,” McAnany said. “What I will say from experience is, these things are complicated, and you don’t want roll them out prematurely, and without community support and outreach to the development community and affected parties — the people that are going to have to deal with it.”

As he’s told others, he said, it’s “really important” to get things right.

Council vote kick-starts work on ‘assured housing’ policy

“It’s no secret that the local governments are moving in this direction … I think anyone — any local developer who’s not aware of it … may not have been paying much attention.”