Council members discuss housing agendas during their meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 13. [Photo by Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

Housing issues in the City of Moab dominated yet another meeting of local elected officials on Tuesday, Nov. 13.

Moab City Council’s regularly scheduled meeting lasted for several hours, with council members spending much of the time deliberating on three ordinances relating to affordable housing, density and development. Around fifty members of the public attended the meeting, although several families exited after a short ceremony honored November’s students of the month. Five citizens came to voice their concerns to the council; three of them spoke specifically about housing issues.

Council adopted proposed ordinance 2018-01 which makes changes to the Moab Municipal Use Code, repealing what have been considered “conditional uses” and replacing those items with “allowed uses with standards,” or removing them altogether from the codes. The ordinance also replaces the word “family” in the code with “household” when referring to occupants of a residence. That language has raised concerns that occupancy limits would be undefined.

Council hesitated on the next two proposed housing ordinances on its agenda, proposed ordinance 2018-19, otherwise known as Planned Affordable Development, or PAD, and proposed ordinance 2018-20, called the Workforce Assured Housing Opportunities Ordinance, or WAHOO.

PAD creates a pathway for current residential zone R2 to increase in density. Residents of this zone have expressed concerns that their neighborhoods will suffer from increased density. One recent change to the council’s draft of the plan ensures that renters provide adequate parking for their tenants, basing the requirements for spaces on the number of bedrooms in a residence, rather than on the type of building.

WAHOO puts a requirement on short-term rental businesses to contribute to the creation of employee housing. Council members were under pressure to address WAHOO before the expiration of a May council resolution that put a stay on new short-term rental businesses, allowing the city six months to create an ordinance and expect those businesses to comply. Beyond the Nov. 22 deadline, those same new short-term rental businesses would not fall under the obligations outlined in WAHOO (though future businesses would).

Kelly Thornton works for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, and has served on the Moab City Planning Commission in the past.

She opened her allotted two minutes of speaking time with this plea: “I’m here to implore you to please pass the Planned Affordable Development Ordinance tonight.”

Thornton then referenced her experience in workforce services to support her point.

“On a regular basis, I hear from local employers whose workforce commutes from Grand Junction, Blanding, Price, Montezuma Creek,” she said, emphasizing the scarcity of housing in town. She continued, “On a regular basis, I look into the eyes of people who are living in their cars, or in camp trailers, or in so-called ‘bunkhouses’ while holding down two or three jobs. And because I also work with people in San Juan County, I look into the eyes of people who are 90 or 100 miles away from the schools that their children attend during the workday because they can’t live in Moab, even for a job they already have here.”

She said the council is “not likely to hear a lot of clamor from these folks.”

“But trust me, they’re here, and they should be considered stakeholders,” Thornton said.

She acknowledged that high density is a contentious issue, but advocated for it as the only solution to the housing problem.

“I know that density is never going to be popular,” she said, emphasizing, “It’s never. Going to be. Popular. But I very much hope that you’ll have the courage and political will to pass this ordinance. Please don’t delay it any longer … it’s time we turned the debate into action. Be brave.”

Kaitlin Myers followed Thornton in the public comments section of the meeting.

Myers works at the Grand County Community and Economic Development Department, but she noted that she spoke as a citizen, and not on behalf of her department. She, too, urged the council to pass ordinances that would alleviate the affordable housing shortage. She described the struggles of her friends and acquaintances in finding a place to live.

“When people find out where I work, they can’t help but tell me their housing stories and their housing struggles. And I’ve heard stuff from all sides of the spectrum,” she said.

“I have friends who live out of their vehicles, not by choice, but because they can’t find affordable housing options,” Myers said. “And still other friends who live and work here full time, pay up to two-thirds of their income on housing.”

Myers herself said she has four roommates. All five occupants of the house live and work in Moab full time and year-round, Myers said.

“For every NIMBY [not in my back yard] who has taken the time to speak at a public meeting against this policy, I can tell you there is at least one YIMBY [yes in my back yard] in this community who supports greater density and greater workforce housing, but they’re at home, taking care of their family, or they’re at work, because they work two to three jobs. And for every NIMBY who bought their home at an affordable price 10, 20, 30 years ago, there’s a YIMBY in this community who hopes to settle down here for 10, 20, 30 years … and they can’t find housing options that allow them to pursue that goal and to really afford roots in this community,” she said.

Myers acknowledged that there are still concerns to be discussed in the proposed ordinances, but also warned the council, “You can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

JD McClanahan, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, works with the Grand County Affordable Housing and Economic Development Department. He described his own unsatisfactory housing situation, and joined Thornton and Myers in asking the council to pass ordinances that would improve housing affordability.

“I pay more than 30 percent of income to rent a room in somebody else’s house,” he said, “because that’s the best option I could find.”

He mentioned “bunkhouses,” the term being used for residential homes that businesses have converted into employee dorm-like residences. Neighbors of these properties have brought complaints to the city, citing ordinance violations.

“People don’t want to live in overcrowded housing — they do that because they don’t have better choices,” McClanahan said of the people living in bunkhouses.

He also asked the council to consider the impacts of these bunkhouses, not just on the neighborhoods, but on the behavioral, psychological and physical health of the occupants.

Though housing issues have been under discussion for years by various boards, commissions and councils, the details are still difficult to iron out. Council members, hesitating to pass the proposed PAD ordinance as drafted, said they need more time to make sure they understand all of the implications of each change. Some members wanted more public hearings and more input from citizens.

The council voted to adopt ordinance 2018-01, amending the Moab Municipal Use Code, adding what Moab City Manager David Everitt called “language of intent” to the motion to adopt. The language conveyed an understanding that if the motion passed, the council would hold a workshop within the next two months to discuss code enforcement, they would discuss and act upon an occupancy definition or limit (to clarify the change from “family” to “household”), and they would come up with a licensing program for long-term rentals.

The council tabled the PAD ordinance with the intention to discuss it further at the next regular council meeting on Dec. 11. The council voted in favor of requiring short-term rental businesses to contribute to the creation of employee housing by adopting WAHOO — perhaps because of the impending deadline, or perhaps because of its optimistic acronym.

Future short-term rental businesses will need to provide for employees

“For every NIMBY [not in my back yard] who has taken the time to speak at a public meeting against this policy, I can tell you there is at least one YIMBY [yes in my back yard] in this community who supports greater density and greater workforce housing, but they’re at home, taking care of their family, or they’re at work, because they work two to three jobs.”