Moab’s lack of affordable housing is becoming a defining feature of the city: local Facebook pages are packed with people searching for rooms or houses to rent, the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah’s “What’s For Rent Wednesday” typically only has five available rentals, and every single one of the candidates running for the open city council and mayor positions in the 2021 election has been asked what they would do to solve the “affordable housing crisis.”
In August, Nora Shepard, planning director for the city, presented a list of possible solutions to the city council. Those included allowing RVs or tents in residential areas and adding more accessory dwelling units. At its Oct. 12 meeting, the council took action on two proposed resolutions that the city hopes will encourage the construction and preservation of local workforce housing.
The first resolution will initiate proceedings to amend the Moab municipal code in single-household and multi-household residential areas to add a requirement that new residential development of more than two households will be “subject to a requirement that some of the units must qualify as active employment households and/or subject to deed restrictions regulating the use of units as workforce housing.”
“The way property values are in Moab, the most profitable thing to do right now is build luxury townhomes for second homeowners,” Shepard said. “We’re not getting employee or workforce housing out of our zoning at this point in time.”
In the past year, the city has seen an increase in applications for new multi-household development, according to Shepard. Several of the projects that have moved forward are selling their units at prices that the average Moab employee—according to the 2019 census, the average annual household income in Moab is just over $51,000—cannot afford. Median Moab home prices in 2021 hover at $490,000.
The city last approved an affordable housing plan in 2017; that plan was written in 2009 by the Interlocal Housing Task Force and Rural Community Assistance Corporation, and was updated in 2016. Many of Moab’s issues then are the same ones the city faces now—namely, a lack of affordable housing and rental units—except then, the average listing price for houses that sold was $277,549.
There haven’t been any recent changes to the municipal code, despite Moab’s standing need for more affordable housing.
“As currently written, there’s no incentive, no requirement, for folks to provide employee or workforce housing units,” Shepard said.
What the resolution will do is establish a process for the city to put workforce housing requirements on new buildings; it is not putting those requirements into place yet. There will be a public process that goes along with initiating those requirements that could take up to six months. Shepard said business owners are likely to be involved, since many local businesses are having trouble hiring people, and the development and real estate communities should also be looped into the discussion.
“This is an issue that we all are suffering from, and we need to come up with solutions,” Shepard said.
Councilmember Karen Guzman-Newton said that one of the next steps is to figure out exactly how many affordable and workforce housing units Moab needs.
“We keep talking about needing workforce housing, but we haven’t had that study done since over three years ago,” said Guzman-Newton. “[We should] have an idea of what it is we’re trying to accomplish, instead of just opening it all up.”
The 2016 plan that Guzman-Newton alluded to estimated that by 2030, over 1,000 new housing units would be needed in Moab. Councilmember Kalen Jones said that the housing task force is waiting for census data to come out so that the task force can correctly update how many units are needed.
“Knowing how things change continually, I’m not going to put a lot of faith in whatever numbers we put in,” said councilmember Mike Duncan. “Whatever numbers we come up with, I’m personally not going to have a lot of confidence. Whatever it is we build, it’s not likely to be enough.”
The council also discussed adding this amendment to other zones in the city, but Shepard said there’s no way a city-wide amendment such as that would go through the public process in six months, which is the current goal.
The resolution passed 5-0.
The second resolution that Shepard brought before the council was an ordinance “amending the text of the Moab Municipal Code to allow accessory dwelling units in all residential zones.” Last year, the state legislature passed House Bill 82, which requires the city to allow interior accessory dwelling units in single-family households. Current city regulations allow ADUs as a permitted use in zones R-1, R-2, R-3, R-4, and RA-1 zones, which are residential zones—these regulations were put into place in 2018.
This amendment would make changes to the code to allow for residents to build more ADUs for the purpose of creating more workforce housing.
In the Planning Commission’s past discussions of ADUs, the commission discussed amending the code concerning: building height—the current code only allows for ADUs to be built one story above ground level; the possibility for lots to have multiple ADUs; and the size of external ADUs. The commission also recommended that the deed restrictions be modified to require occupancy by “active employment households,” which basically means that 50% of occupants would have to work in Grand County.
Shepard also proposed that in the case of an internal ADU, the owner of the property must also live there—which some members of the council questioned, as it would both inhibit second home owners from renting out their homes and inhibit the possibility of multiple renters.
“To limit any opportunity to have somebody who is part of our workforce renting any portion of a home, I would be opposed to,” said Guzman-Newton.
Councilmember Rani Derasary brought up the issue of enforcing these restrictions—she worried that it would overburden the Moab police department. She said that the city should establish protocols for enforcement that don’t go through the police department.
The council discussed the length of renting required—Guzman-Newton initially suggested six months as the minimum, but councilmember Tawny Knuteson-Boyd pointed out that changing the required length of renting would prevent homeowners from renting out rooms on a month-to-month basis.
The council further discussed each item in the resolution, including how many ADUs should be allowed on a lot and limits on building size. Jones said he would be inclined to postpone passing the resolution, to which Mayor Emily Niehaus replied: “No, no, no, I feel like we can pass this! I’m going to make a plea, to you all, to consider passing this.”
However, Derasary said she agreed with Jones. She still has questions, she said, and many of the other council members wanted to further discuss line items.
“Then it’s going on the next agenda,” Niehaus said. The next city council meeting will be on October 26.
The council voted 5-0 to table the resolution for two weeks.