At its July 19 meeting, the Grand County Commission unanimously approved a resolution to initiate proceedings to amend the county’s land use code, adding a requirement that new developments include a percentage of workforce housing (or fees in lieu). The resolution lasts for six months and gets the ball rolling for staff to develop the ordinance and initiate a technical analysis of the area housing market to support specifics of the ordinance. Once the ordinance is crafted, there will be a public hearing process.
The resolution includes a litany of sobering recent local housing statistics. In June of this year, the median home price was $792,000, trending upward 85.5% year-over-year; the previous month, the median home price was $694,000. Those figures are unattainable for local households where the median income is $52,000.
High prices are driven in part by second home owners: of 4,576 residential units in Grand County, 25% are second homes, which have a market value almost double that of primary residences. Of 293 known rental units (other than senior housing), only seven are available to rent, as of last week when Grand County Planning Director Elissa Martin conducted research on the current housing situation to support the resolution. Five of those units are three-bedroom homes averaging $4,000 a month, putting them out of reach for many local workers; there are at least 50 Grand County residents on waitlists for apartment complexes.
Meanwhile, the Moab Valley Multicultural Center reported that year-to-date, the organization has served 165 adults and 98 children who meet federal definitions for homelessness diversion, emergency shelter, homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing, and drop-in services. Earlier in the commission meeting, Commissioner Trisha Hedin reported June figures for people seeking homelessness services: 144 people, 57 of whom were literally homeless.
These dire numbers affect not only those seeking housing, but the whole community. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Grand County Economic Development Department and referenced in the resolution, 82% of county employers reported that the housing crisis limited their ability to maintain full staffing; 65% had lost employees due to the housing crisis.
Meanwhile, the county continues to receive development applications for property rezones that would facilitate the construction of high-end homes unattainable for the local workforce.
The county has been working on addressing the housing shortage through many strategies: a High Density Housing Overlay offers density bonuses in exchange for deed restriction of 80% of a development to local workers; officials are discussing codifying longterm residential camping options; they’re also considering a program through which the county would buy homes, deed restrict them to reduce their value, and resell them to members of the local workforce.
“We’re working on it from all directions, and this is one piece,” said County Attorney Christina Sloan.
The envisioned ordinance would be similar to one under discussion at the city, which has faced threats of legal challenge and opposition from the Utah Central Association of Realtors. [See “City still developing workforce housing ordinance,” June 30 edition. -ed.] Martin noted that there are some key differences between the city’s proposed ordinance and the one the county is envisioning. For one, the county doesn’t yet know what percentage the ordinance will require, though Martin said it will likely fall between 20-30%.
“The study will take into consideration the feasibility for a development to provide the deed restricted units or a fee in lieu and also be able to pencil out,” Martin said.
The county’s ordinance would also apply more broadly, rather than targeting a specific zoning district.
The ordinance would not include any income thresholds or price caps, but instead use local workforce deed restrictions to limit market forces on those housing units to those at play in the county, excluding the capital and income of earners outside the county.
“It is important to note that when we say ‘workforce housing’ it means deed restricted housing, not affordable housing,” Martin said.
There are many aspects of the ordinance that still need to be fleshed out. The technical study will help determine what percentage of the development should be required as workforce housing; county staff hope that study will be complete by early November. Policy makers will also have to decide whether the workforce housing must be owned by local workers, or whether occupancy will suffice (there was contention on this point in the county’s High Density Housing Overlay strategy). Enforcement of the ordinance will also have to be outlined—Martin said it will likely fall under the purview of the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah, which oversees compliance with the HDHO. Spending of payments-in-lieu must be determined; Martin said one idea would be to channel that money toward housing organizations like the HASU or the Moab Area Community Land Trust.
Now that the pending ordinance resolution has been approved, new development applications are subject to the discretionary approval of the Grand County Commission, based on how well proposals align with the pending workforce housing requirement.
Commissioners thanked Martin and her colleagues for their hard work on housing measures and agreed that strong action is necessary to prevent the crisis from getting any worse. They all acknowledged that the situation is dire.
“Crisis is a good word for it,” said Commission Chair Jacques Hadler.