[Photo courtesy Brian Martinez]

“I never had a place in Moab,” said Brian Martinez of his early life in town.

Martinez has been a rafting guide since he came to Moab in 2000.

“I just lived in tents and RVs and things like that. I was pretty transient here for quite a few years. But that was a different lifestyle than now,” he said.

Martinez said his lifestyle changed when he had kids. His two sons, ages eight and nine, live with him and attend Helen M. Knight Elementary School. He credits the Housing Authority with helping his family obtain a home.

Martinez just purchased his home in March through the Housing Authority of Southeast Utah’s CROWN rent-to-own program.

In CROWN (derived from “CRedits to OWN), rent payments are set below market rate and rent paid goes toward paying the mortgage of the house. At the end of fifteen years, families can buy their home using the equity gained through their rent payments. This long-term agreement prevents abuse of the program to “flip” homes meant to be affordable options for rooted Moab residents.

CROWN is just one of several programs administered by HASU. Executive Director Ben Riley had positive news for the county council when he gave a status update on the organization at the regular council meeting on Nov. 19. Construction on new housing continues, the organization is expanding its staff, diversifying its revenue and HASU programs are effectively getting people like Martinez into housing they can afford.

The Martinez home has three bedrooms and two bathrooms on a quiet cul-de-sac close to the Pipe Dream trail, where he and his sons go to get outdoors.

“For most people working as a river guide, the idea of owning a home in Moab is pretty far out there,” Martinez said. “It wouldn’t have been possible to get into a home, not a home like this, without a great program like [CROWN].”

Now a manager at Navtec Expeditions, Martinez asks prospective employees about their plans for living in Moab as part of his interview questions.

“You get all kinds of folks, folks that have been to Moab and know that they want to come here, and they’re ready for it,” said Martinez. “Then there are other folks that say, ‘What do you mean, I’m just going to go and find an apartment.’ And I’m like, ‘Probably not!’”

Martinez believes that people who really want to make Moab their home can find a way with the aid of the Housing Authority and other nonprofits and government programs dedicated to affordable housing.

“This is an amazing program. I hope they keep it going. The Housing Authority has done a lot of good stuff,” Martinez said.

HASU also administers Section 8 housing vouchers, which are federally funded and subsidize rent for very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled. The Department of Veterans Affairs issues Section 8 vouchers specifically set aside for veterans, and HASU is working on obtaining five more of these veteran vouchers, called Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH), for the Moab area.

The Mutual Self Help program, also known as the “Sweat Equity” program, is a USDA grant-funded program that provides affordable loans and home-ownership opportunities to buyers willing to put in hours to help in the construction of their homes. The Bonita Street neighborhood is an example of this type of home.

Five homes in Blanding have just been completed through the self-help program, Riley reported, and HASU has been approved for funding for another self-help project in Moab that will start in December.

HASU also owns the rent-subsidized Virginian Apartment and Cinema Court Apartment complexes for low-income applicants.

Cinema Court differs significantly from the sweat equity program in that it was paid for using tax credits. Tax credits may be awarded by the state to a nonprofit, like HASU, to be “redeemed” for cash from a business that wants to buy that tax credit.

“There’s a federal regulation called the Community Reinvestment Act,” Riley explained to the Moab Sun News.

That regulation mandates that large banks and corporations must give back to the communities in which they’re chartered. One way such entities in the Moab area can do that is by purchasing tax credits from the Housing Authority.

“American Express is one that we work with a lot,” said Riley.

Another tax-credit project underway is the Moab Area Partnership for Seniors (MAPS), an independent-living apartment complex for residents fifty-five and older. Construction on the three-story building is in the framing phase. The property for MAPS was donated by the Canyonlands Healthcare Special Service District. The facility aligns with the Canyonlands Healthcare goals, creating an affordable independent living option for senior citizens.

Riley explained that tax credit projects like these provide HASU with unrestricted funds, unlike funds received through the mutual self-help program which are cost-reimbursement only—each dollar collected must be tied to a self-help project expense. With tax credit programs like Cinema Court and MAPS, HASU can add a developer’s fee to the price of the tax credits, and generate income that is not tied to specific expenses and can be used, for example, to buy property for new affordable housing developments.

“HASU has been really known for self-help homes,” Riley said. But he wanted to emphasize that HASU is also working on projects that allow the organization to be more creative and flexible with their budget.

Riley said that they are also responding to the feedback they’ve heard from the community asking for more affordable rental options.

“I’m not trying to diminish self-help, or not do self-help… but now we’re also doing more fully deed-restricted, fully affordable rental units, as well,” Riley said.

HASU’s efforts are part of a long build-up of government officials, nonprofits, and volunteer committees and organizations devising and implementing solutions to a big problem. Riley said these solutions are gaining momentum thanks to competent, driven people who have committed to staying in Moab long enough to understand and address the problem.

“You need stability, and you need to have the right people in the right positions to get up to speed and get the capacity to get these things done,” he said, mentioning the Housing Task Force and employees at the County Department of Community and Economic Development (CED), among others. “Over the last five years, we’ve been able to get a lot accomplished.”

In 2017, Grand County’s Department of Community and Economic Development released the Moab Area Affordable Housing Plan, which outlines projected housing needs for Grand County. The plan’s authors used thresholds established by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine a base-line need of 1000 units, considering the number of households that are “cost-burdened,” or spending more than 30% of their income on housing.

The plan emphasizes that projections are necessarily based on assumptions, and can’t be considered certain. The housing models used suggested that “demand for new housing units will increase by 316 in 2020, 1,024 in 2030, 1,826 in 2040, and 2,737 in 2050,” and that “of the 316 new units needed by 2020, 98 will be renter-occupied and 218 will be owner-occupied. In 2030, the numbers increase to 323 and 701, respectively.”

At the same Nov. 19 meeting where Riley gave his update on HASU, Councilmember Curtis Wells expressed optimism regarding the county’s housing plans.

“We’re well on track to provide the inventory that we’ve identified is needed for affordable housing and workforce housing,” said Wells. “We’re obviously still working on it, but a lot of things are in motion that are tailored to address that issue.”

Riley agreed with Wells’ stance that the county is in a good place with the plans and programs that are poised to be activated.

With all these new housing units on the horizon, Riley feels there is momentum toward meaningful progress toward getting residents in stable long-term housing.

“After a long period of being stagnant, of knowing it’s an issue but not doing anything about it, we’ve come to a time of having the right people come together and do it,” said Riley. “We feel like we have a good team together now.”

Local groups addressing Moab’s housing crisis

“This is an amazing program. I hope they keep it going. The Housing Authority has done a lot of good stuff in this area.”

– Brian Martinez