Moab’s housing crisis continues to put pressure on the community.

Multiple low-income neighborhoods have been displaced in the last few months; the local homelessness council reports that over 100 individuals are seeking homelessness services; the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah has wait lists for all of its subsidized housing programs. The lack of attainable housing has meant potential workers have declined to come to Moab, or have moved away: Local businesses have had to reduce hours because of staffing shortages; even essential services like public education and law enforcement have struggled to recruit and retain baseline staffing. Many local workers live in vehicles or tents, some commuting back and forth between dispersed camp spots on public lands and others parking illegally in town.

Efforts to encourage the construction of affordable housing have been underway for years, by the county, the city, and nonprofits, but they’re not keeping up with the need. Recently county planners have been working on changes to the land use code that could more immediately help to alleviate the workforce housing crisis, at least temporarily.

An immediate code update would allow property owners to apply for a “temporary dwelling permit” establishing health and safety standards for temporary residences like RVs, camper vans or tents. Currently, camping outside of licensed campgrounds in the county is illegal, even on private property. The temporary dwelling permit would address current instances of illegal workforce camping, offering a way for those situations to come into compliance with county code. The town of Castle Valley already has a temporary dwelling permit, which requires temporary dwellings to have connection to an approved septic system or be self-contained. The Castle Valley permit must be renewed every two years.

Recently county planners have been working on changes to the land use code that could more immediately help to alleviate the workforce housing crisis, at least temporarily.

A future ordinance is also under consideration that would establish an “Alternative Dwelling Overlay,” identifying areas in the county where property owners could apply for a rezone to create a campground deed-restricted for local workers. Staff are still brainstorming and problem-solving to work out the details of such an ordinance. The current draft suggests that the alternative dwelling lots—which might be tent sites, tiny homes, or spots for RVs, camper vans, or trailers—be restricted to a minimum occupancy of 90 days by a member of the local workforce. To comply with health and building standards, all alternative dwelling sites would have to have utilities stubbed to them, or else access to shared water and bathroom facilities.

There’s an urgency behind the code changes, as current county policy targets community members with very few options.

Local guide and outfitter business Navtec had been allowing employees to camp on a piece of private property, in violation of county code, for years, and was recently issued a compliance order after the county received an anonymous complaint about the site. 

At a neighborhood visioning open house in late April, county planning staff spoke with about a dozen residents of “the swamp,” the nickname Navtec employees have given their campsite. The residents said they felt like they were being treated inhumanely.

“Let’s act like humans as a government—why aren’t we doing that?” asked Mike Grindstaff, one of the residents of the property, at the meeting.

Right now the deadline for campers to leave the property is June 30, though officials have indicated that they would be willing to issue further extensions as long as the property owner continues to work with the county towards finding a solution.

Brian Martinez, general manager at Navtec and acting agent for the property, has talked with county staff about their ideas and said he’s hopeful that they’ll be able to come to an agreement that will allow Navtec employees to continue to live on the parcel, located near the Scott and Norma Matheson Wetlands Preserve and the wastewater treatment plant. Navtec already provides the campers with a regularly serviced portable toilet and a water tank with a pump for potable water. Martinez said he would happily put the property under a deed restriction for temporary workforce housing.

Planning commissioners have discussed the housing crisis in depth at recent meetings. They recognize the need for immediate workforce housing, but also have several concerns: that workforce housing meet health and safety standards; that residential neighborhoods are not being negatively impacted; and that the dignity of workers is being protected.

Planners also want to ensure that accommodations being made for local workers—for example, they discussed the possibility of creating a parking pass that would allow workers who live in their vehicles, whether by choice or necessity, to park in town overnight—are not being taken advantage of by visitors who are also using their vehicles as dwellings while on vacation.

Though questions of implementation remain, there’s momentum to create avenues for community members to at least be in compliance with county code, even if they’re struggling to find standard housing or aren’t interested in traditional housing but want to continue to be a part of the community.