The purchase of the $1.8 million Walnut Lane property was the City of Moab’s first foray into directly creating and owning an affordable housing project, with a plan to create up to 80 modern apartment units, townhomes and duplexes.

Purchased in October 2018, the three-acre lot had an existing mobile home park with 35 trailer homes with dozens of tenants. The city took on property management responsibilities and pledged that, far from being evicted, the existing residents would stay and be first in line for the new homes.

However, the city has met with stumbling blocks along the way including legal, financial, and maintenance challenges that have delayed progress on building the new development.

Moab City Senior Projects Manager Kaitlin Myers said that city staff are helping tenants who are behind on rent to find aid, assessing whether trailers are abandoned or privately owned, and figuring out whether the city has the legal authority to demolish or remove some trailers.

Along with managing such legal challenges, a more pressing issue concerns the residents of Walnut Lane: maintenance of the old and dilapidated units, some of which are considered uninhabitable.

Myers displayed photos of some Walnut Lane trailers at an Aug. 25 Moab City Council meeting, showing deteriorating and leaking structures.

“There are some that look better than this, there are definitely a lot that look a lot worse,” Myers told the council.

Myers said that city staff receives maintenance calls every week with complex and urgent complaints involving electrical systems, swamp coolers, and aging trailer structures.

Linares clarified that when city staff use the term “habitable,” it’s not a matter of personal opinion but rather a legal term that specifies certain standards, such as the availability of adequate heat, hot water, plumbing, and structural soundness in a legal residential unit.

“Some of these trailers are not habitable” under the legal definition of the term, Linares explained. Six of the trailers were deemed uninhabitable by the city and removed after tenants had voluntarily left them; two burned down in a fire and were demolished.

In one incident involving a gas leak, the city had to call the utility company to shut off the gas. The trailer in question was judged to be in need of extensive improvements before the utility company would approve turning the gas back on. As temperatures fall, the resident is waiting for those improvements in order to be able to turn on the heat in the unit.

The city has advertised a new full-time mechanical technician position that will proactively address such maintenance issues, but with the existing housing in such poor condition and completion of the new housing at least a couple of years away, staff have realized they need to come up with a “gap” solution.

Current residents of the Walnut Lane trailer park could be relocated to housing that meets federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards.

Myers said the city is working with the Moab Valley Multicultural Center to identify Walnut Lane residents who qualify for the recently completed MAPS Senior Living apartments as a start. However, affordable housing is scarce in the Moab Valley—the very reason the project began—and finding units where Walnut Lane residents can relocate is a challenge.

For residents who don’t qualify for the senior living community, the city must either carry out expensive upgrades to the existing Walnut Lane trailers or replace dilapidated units with new temporary housing for residents on the site.

Either option will cost the city money.

Mayor Emily Niehaus and councilmembers wondered if temporary housing units would depreciate rapidly, diminishing any recouped costs for the city in re-selling them; there were also concerns that some types of units are not insurable if they are moved more than once.

Moab city staff has asked for bids to replace the sub-standard trailers to find out how much money such a step would actually cost.

Linares gave a rough estimate of $15,000 to repair each existing trailer, noting that the units will then be torn down when the new housing units open. Alternatively, he said, the city could spend roughly $30,000 replacing each with a new trailer, which would still retain some resale value in two or three years.

Linares speculated the trailers could then be sold to Moab residents as additional dwelling units on existing properties, though he noted the city would have to amend its code to facilitate this.

Once staff receives bids on replacing uninhabitable trailers, they will have more information to guide their decision on how to proceed with the complex undertaking.

Funding for any of these solutions will come from the WAHOO account: money collected via the Workforce Assured Housing Opportunities Ordinance, passed by the city in 2018. That ordinance mandates that short-term rental businesses contribute to local employee housing, either by directly building affordable units or paying into a fund. The WAHOO fund has roughly $1.6 million, specifically collected to be used toward affordable housing; money for Walnut Lane will not come from the city’s beleaguered General Fund and money from the WAHOO account cannot be used for anything other than affordable housing.

“We knew buying this was going to open our eyes and our doors to what’s happening,” Niehaus said, thanking staff for their dedication to obtaining quality housing for Moab residents.

Decaying trailers cause issues at Walnut Lane