Moab workers struggle to find places to live during housing crisis

May 5, 2022, 10:36 PM | Updated: Oct 12, 2022, 3:47 pm

MOAB, Utah — One of Utah’s most popular tourist destinations is facing a crisis. Tourists flocking to Moab have plenty of options when it comes to places to stay, but the workers who keep the town running say they can’t afford to live there and there aren’t enough places to rent.

As the population grows, Moab city leaders say the number of rental units isn’t catching up. While they’re trying to address the problem, some of those who call one of America’s most iconic playgrounds home, barely have a bed to sleep in.

The draw is obvious: Adventure, beauty and a bustling town.

A look at classified ads and Facebook posts shows plenty of open jobs for anyone who wants to live in Moab. They just may not have an actual place to move into.

“I know people living in their cars or living in a tent,” said Moab resident Mathea Tenwalde.

She is one of many who have had to make do living somewhere unconventional — and less than ideal.

Tenwalde showed off her humble abode, all while standing mostly in the same spot.

She and her partner Micha Chirug recently bought a 1980s RV that they live in with their dog Lentil.

Tenwalde said they paid cash for it in Salt Lake City, then drove it out to Moab. The couple struggled to find a place to park it, she said, because most campgrounds and RV parks only offer short-term rentals.

They finally found a spot just south of Moab and now pay hundreds of dollars a month to park in a dusty, junkyard-looking lot that’s a community filled with other inhabited buses and trailers.

The fridge doesn’t work, and neither does the sink, shower or toilet.

There’s a community bathroom on the property that Tenwalde and Chirug can use if they need to. They fill jugs of water to use for drinking and cooking.

“I try to just use the bathroom at work,” Tenwalde said, with a chuckle.

For them, it was the best option compared to other places Tenwalde said they looked at with a $1,200 a month budget.

“A basement apartment but it didn’t have a kitchen, and it was $1,200,” she explained, of the only other viable place they found.

She ended up looking outside the couple’s budget, but found prices were too high to afford.

“Most of the things that we found that were available were like renting a whole house in the $3,000 range,” she explained.

The Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah keeps track of rentals in the area every week and makes a post on Facebook called “What’s for Rent Wednesday.”

Here are some of the latest options in Moab:

  • A two-bedroom, one-bath apartment for $1,800 a month
  • Four three-bedroom homes for $2,500, $2,850, $3,000, and $3,200 a month

And that’s it. A whopping five listings in town, none under $1,800.

The prices may not seem that astronomical in the grand scheme of rent in Utah. But according to the U.S. Census and Utah Department of Workforce Services, between the years 2019 and 2020, gross rent on a three-bedroom home in Grand County (which includes Moab) jumped 44.88%. In that same time span, the average monthly income rose only 8.3%.

Laura Harris, chair of the Moab Area Housing Task Force, said Moab residents need to earn an average of $34 an hour to afford an average-costing three-bedroom rental, to meet national affordability standards.

“That just makes it super out of reach for so many of the members of the community, and especially the hospitality industry and a lot of seasonal workers, because Moab is so fueled by the tourism industry,” she said.

The task force meets every month to provide updates on housing in Moab, look at different ideas and solutions, and focus on educating the rest of the community on the housing crisis.

Because many can’t rent an entire house, Harris said landlords rent individual rooms in homes for $900 to $1,200.

Some employers are providing workforce housing for employees, she said, with bunkhouse-type situations or properties with trailers.

Tenwalde said her employer offered her a room to stay in at first, meant to be temporary.

She, her partner, and Lentil needed more than just a single room to live in. That’s how they landed on the RV.

“I don’t see myself being able to rent a place, even with my current budget right now,” Tenwalde said. “This is the only option.”

Tenwalde and Chirug each have good-paying jobs, she explained, yet they live with no running water and no air conditioning.

Still, she described feeling lucky they were able to buy an RV and find the lot to park in.

‘We don’t have any housing, period’

The problem, Harris indicated, isn’t just affordability, but it’s the increasing number of second homes and short-term, overnight rentals in Moab.

“It’s just gotten so much harder because of the rise of developing of more high-end properties. So, condos and townhomes that are really geared towards vacation homes or second home ownership,” Harris said. “So that’s driving not just the purchase prices up, but it’s just making it so much harder for people to find just normal living situations.”

Zoe Huston, Community Coordinator for the Moab Valley Multicultural Center (MVMC) has met many people in similar situations to Tenwalde and Chirug, finding almost no options when looking for a place to rent.

“We have to sit down and say, ‘This is what this looks like here.’ You know, ‘You can live outside. You can camp for the next nine months,’” Huston said she tells people.

The MVMC connects clients to resources and helps those experiencing homelessness. They have an office and walk-in crisis center just a block off Main Street in Moab.

Huston explained they help in many different arenas from legal and court advocacy to immigration, schools, youth, health, substance abuse and housing.

The last topic has become a huge service of the MVMC. Huston said people come in stressed and scared multiple times a day, unable to find a place to live.

People who come into the MVMC, Huston explained, often have jobs — or two, or three.

“It’s not an issue of not being able to pay rent. It’s an issue of, there’s literally nowhere to pay it,” Huston said. “Affordable housing is also an issue, but we just don’t have any housing, period.”

Even for people who have a place to rent, she added that those situations can be just as uncertain.

Take, for example, everyone living in a mobile home park a couple of blocks north of Main Street. Huston said residents got a notice on Dec. 16 that they had 45 days to move.

From her understanding, the property will undergo new development. Nearly five months later, the lot is roped off and most of the trailer homes are still sitting there, vacant.

MVMC was able to help residents get some relocation funds, but Huston said the cost to relocate to Moab is upwards of $6,000 when you factor in the first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and deposit.

Many residents from that mobile home park are still displaced, she explained.

“One of the families — a single mom with three kiddos — she is still living in a hotel room with her and her three kids,” Huston said.

A city looking for solutions

Moab Mayor Joette Langianese and Council Member Luke Wojciechowski said they’re trying to address the housing crisis in new, creative ways.

“To have our grocery stores staffed, to have our hospitals staffed, to have our police department staffed, you need people that provide these essential services to have a place to live here,” Langianese said. “They’re permanent, long-term employees and we just do not have the housing capacity, and the availability right now and the affordability to support that. And it’s a serious problem.”

They explained how Moab’s housing crisis is made more complicated by the fact that they don’t have any nearby cities or metropolitan areas to draw upon for their workforce as Park City does with the Salt Lake Valley.

Anyone working in Moab, likely lives in or right around Moab. Though it’s not unheard of for people to live in communities like Green River or Monticello, both towns are the better part of an hour away, which makes for a long commute.

Wojciechowski said there is no silver bullet, and that they need multi-pronged, novel approaches to address the issue.

He and Langianese outlined a few things the city’s been working on.

They just built 36 units of apartments for senior housing, Langianese said, on donated land. She said the apartments are for multi-income tenants, ranging from low cost to market value.

“We’re currently looking at potentially doing a public-private partnership to see if we can partner up with some sort of developers, and lease some of the city-owned land to be able to provide housing,” Wojciechowski added.

The council also recently considered a proposed ordinance that would place deed restrictions on high-density development zones. The proposed ordinance would mandate that 42.5% of the units be set aside for active employee housing instead of short-term rentals

But Langianese described how the council received pushback from citizens and others in the community, and the council put the proposed ordinance on hold.

“As soon as we can work with them and talk to them and get to a place where we all have an agreement, I think we’ll move forward and approve that ordinance. That’s my hope,” she said.

It’s also Langianese’s hope that private developers focus on building more apartments rather than just second homes or short-term rentals.

“We’re going to continue to have this issue and we need to … come up with some better alternatives,” she said.

She shared that there are some developments on cue that would provide 100% worker housing, but those are one or two years down the road.

“We are open to having any and all conversations with interested parties, to see what we can do to make sure that we can effectively address these issues,” Wojciechowski said. He continued that they want to, “plan out short-, medium-, and long-term strategies to be able to address these things appropriately.”

Building a path forward

Community organizations are bringing immediate relief to residents, through a unique development taking shape in Spanish Valley, a few minutes south of Moab.

On a windy spring afternoon, music permeated the air at a construction site interrupted by the sound of saws and power tools.

Several half-built homes lined a street in what’s called Arroyo Crossing.

Ellie Grosse, content and drafting developer at the nonprofit Community Rebuilds, explained that Arroyo Crossing is a planned 300-unit development of affordable housing, on land donated to the Moab Area Community Land Trust.

Community Rebuilds, she explained, is currently building single-family homes and duplexes, as is the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah.

“The overall vision of the Land Trust is really, really awesome because it’s a mixed-income housing development,” Grosse said.

She laid out how various organizations plan to help build 48 single-family homes, somewhere around 30 townhomes, an 84-unit apartment development, a 32-unit apartment development, a 24-unit tiny home walking community, and three community buildings.

The development includes areas set aside for green space and community spaces, Grosse added, like bike paths and trails.

Community Rebuilds focuses on giving low-income Moab residents an opportunity to become homeowners through a self-help program.

That means the Community Rebuilds houses in Arroyo Crossing, are partly built by the people who will own the homes.

“The program is just designed to help them participate in that house, and that’s sort of what allows them to get that affordable mortgage,” said Community Rebuilds lead builder Amanda Jane Albert.

She said homeowners assigned to each house participate 100 hours a month on their homes or houses of neighbors.

Albert said they currently have eight houses under construction, and in less than a month they’ll begin on another eight.

In addition to running a build team and offering the sweat-equity homeownership program, Community Rebuilds operates as an education program, Albert said, to teach sustainable building.

Each home is constructed with sustainability and energy efficiency as a top priority.

Albert said they use cork insulation around the foundation instead of foam insulation, and they use wood products instead of plastic.

Every house contains straw bale insulation, Albert said, and uses natural plasters and clay plasters. They use solar panels and high insulation, to keep costs low for homeowners after they move in.

“I’m just proud. I’m proud of folks that want to come out and get their hands dirty working for other people,” Albert said. “I’m proud of the folks that want to, that are interested in learning to build and learning to build non conventionally in a more sustainable way.”

Janis Adkins is one of the Community Rebuilds homeowners, who will live on one side of a twin duplex. She walked around the framed shell of what will be her new home sometime this fall.

“This is my living room, this little space” Adkins said with an excited laugh, twirling in a circle where she plans to put a chair and a couch.

At one time, Adkins was homeless and living in her van. She’s been a Moab resident for three decades, save for a few years when she left following the crash of 2008 after she lost her once-successful nursery business in Moab.

Adkins has been trying to get on her feet since then and described staying with friends when she couldn’t find somewhere to rent.

She lives downtown right now but said she had to work with the landlord on rent. Adkins qualified for the Community Rebuilds self-help program.

In just a few months, she’ll begin building equity.

“To be able to start all over again and do something that’s mine is huge. I’m very excited,” Adkins said.

She’s been picking out fixtures and wall colors. Adkins, who is 65, takes on what home-building tasks she can.

Adkins said she may not have much, but she has this home.

“And I’m here, with a bathtub and a stove,” Adkins said, with a laugh. “And I get to garden. And I’m such a garden freak, and I love flowers.”

She’ll be one less person worrying about where to live in Moab with an actual, affordable place to call home.

“Gratitude is what I do, and I do it well,” Adkins said, as tears welled in her eyes. “And I’m very grateful for it.”

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Moab workers struggle to find places to live during housing crisis