Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Local Media Association, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting on homelessness in Utah communities outside of the Salt Lake Valley.
Moab • As the spring tourism season began to heat up earlier this year, Moab Police Chief Bret Edge put out a plea to the community.
His department was looking to hire a number of new officers, most of them transplants to the southeastern Utah recreation hub — but it was having a hard time finding them housing.
“If you, or someone you know, has a home or apartment for rent, or even a creative idea for housing, please contact our office,” Edge wrote in an April post on the department’s Facebook page.
As of late June, he said two of the new recruits had been able to find housing; three others backed out of the job because they couldn’t secure a place to live.
The shortage of housing in Moab has been a growing concern for advocates for the homeless and for families facing financial struggles. But, as shown by the cry for help from the Moab police department, locals say the crisis has also started hitting workers with steady jobs and higher incomes. Officers, for example, start at $21.65 an hour, are offered $5,000 toward moving costs and some qualify for a recruiting bonus.
The factors driving the shortages are complex, but all seem to swirl around the tourist explosion in the redrock city. Some blame the scarcity of long-term rentals on Airbnb hosts, who in turn point the finger at local government for what they say are failures in development planning. And during the pandemic, there’s been an anecdotal surge of outsiders buying second homes in town — further chipping away at the supply of housing for locals.
Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann said the shortage of affordable dwellings is the “No. 1 issue” in the community right now, with such widespread impacts that it keeps her up at night.
“And not housing for low-income [people],” she said. “Housing for your teachers, your policemen, your nurses. That middle professional.”
Benjamin Riley, executive director of the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah, agreed that the “talk of the town” over the past few years has shifted from the need for “low, low income” housing “to the essential workers housing crisis.”
Those workers might make anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year — but, in Moab, they’re still struggling either to afford a place to live or simply to find one.
“The single family home supply has gone down for whatever reason, because of COVID, because of low supply,” Riley said. And developers have been building more overnight accommodations than single-family homes.
Rentals are full, too, he added, estimating Moab has around a 99% occupancy rate. The housing authority puts together a weekly “What’s for Rent Wednesday” compilation of places that are available. And recently, he said, there were zero units open.
It’s a big change for the once-sleepy community, said Lenore Beeson, who has spent decades as a real estate agent in Moab.
“When I moved here in 1992, we were pretty spoiled. You could have rolled a bowling ball down Main Street … and it would have not stopped,” she joked, referring to the number of people who now pack the thoroughfare. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Tourists bring ‘more money’
In this market, area business owners who are struggling to find enough housing for their employees often blame Airbnb hosts for converting long-term rentals into tourist lodging.
“People can make more money off of a nightly rental than if they had a monthly rental or a yearly rental,” said Mike Stimola, owner of Moab Canyon Tours. “That really is a bummer.”
As increasingly large numbers of visitors stream through this tourism-based economy each year to visit the nearby Canyonlands and Arches national parks, Airbnb hosts in Moab charge anywhere from $76 to $213 a night for two guests in the peak season, based on a recent search of available stays on the site.
If a host filled his or her place every night for a month, that could produce nearly $2,300 on the low end, or about $6,400 on the high end — and either figure is significantly higher than a market rate renter would pay.
Danielle Skidmore, a lifelong Moab resident, said the community has become “so tourist-based that the tourists are now taking over the locals.” She’s spoken with several people, she said, who lost their housing because their landlords were converting the homes to overnight rentals.
After losing her own Moab home last winter, when the owner decided to sell it, Skidmore, 37, and her three children, dog and cat all piled into a recreational vehicle, parking it inside a large garage to shelter from the cold weather and stay hidden from authorities who might otherwise ticket them.
She searched for a new home but couldn’t find anything affordable. She ultimately had to uproot her children from their schools and move an hour away to Monticello — which she said also now has a housing shortage because of the influx from Moab.
“A couple of my girls’ friends are now in the same school because they moved from Moab also,” she said. “And then I have six [Moab] families right now that have asked me to keep my ears open for rentals.”
To address concerns about overnight lodging, Moab has prohibited new Airbnbs in residential areas, although short-term rentals that predated these rules are allowed to stay in place, according to Nora Shepard, city planning director. New Airbnbs can exist in only commercial zones — and even these have been barred indefinitely since 2019 because of a moratorium that Moab officials placed on new tourist accommodations.
McGann said the effort to “tighten down” on Airbnbs has made a big difference, but she noted that it’s still difficult to enforce the rules, since seeing an advertisement for a short-term rental in a prohibited area isn’t enough to shut it down.
“You have to prove it by having somebody book a room,” she noted. “So you get online and you see there’s this Airbnb that isn’t supposed to be there, isn’t licensed, isn’t paying [transient room] tax, and then you have to go through this whole process to fight them.”
Some property owners have come up with creative solutions to get around the regulations, she said. McGann has heard of some cases in which temporary visitors who stay only for a week or two have been asked to sign a “lease” for a month, for example.
“Even leaving it empty for half the month, they’re making more money than if they did a long-term rental,” she said. “It’s worth it to cheat the system that way. And they say, ‘We can’t help it if they leave early; they signed a lease for a month.’ But they just came in and stayed a week.”
Cracking the affordable housing ‘code’
Marc Horwitz, a longtime Moab area resident and Airbnb host, argues that online room rentals are an easy scapegoat for housing problems he argues were created by city and county officials in years past.
While local leaders permitted the construction of hundreds of vacation homes, they failed to plan housing for the locals who’d be running the restaurants, hotels and outfitters that would support the tourist boom, he contends.
“Rim Village, for example, has been an overnight rental for longer than Airbnb has been in business,” he said. “That’s an entire subdivision.”
Horwitz arrived in Moab in the 1980s from California and ran a vegetarian diner on Main Street, eventually selling it to buy a large home, where he and his wife opened a bed and breakfast. Now, the couple offer one room on Airbnb and rent out three others to locals — so he said it’s unfair to accuse him of exacerbating the region’s housing shortage.
He and his wife are simply trying to support themselves by making the best of the tourism that has come to dominate Moab, he said. He counts himself lucky to have bought a home before that boom happened.
“I’m in pretty good straits because I don’t have a mortgage or a big rent payment,” he said. “But if you did, I think you’d be hard-pressed. I don’t know how you’d make it if you were just working for a living. Hard life.”
Grand County Commissioner Gabriel Woytek agrees with Horwitz that past planning and development missteps have contributed to the current housing pinch, though he believes Airbnb also compounds the problem.
Still, the fixes are complicated, he said, since the county lacks the staffing to spearhead its own affordable housing projects, and officials have found it challenging to attract private developers for these types of communities.
“We haven’t cracked that code yet,” he said.
Kaitlin Myers, Moab’s senior project manager, said her sense is that Airbnb is a bigger issue outside city limits. She sees a surge of part-time residents as a greater factor in the housing crisis.
“The Zoom boom has hit the state of Utah pretty hard,” she said. “Anecdotally, a lot of second homeowners are coming in, a lot of locals are seeing an opportunity to sell their house for way above what they could’ve even this time last year. So I think we’re losing a lot of our housing stock to second homes.”
Beeson, the real estate agent, said she has seen a spike in the number of out-of-towners who are buying second homes, a phenomenon that has played out in many rural destinations. People are pouring in from places like California and New York, with the goal, she believes, of securing a safe haven far away from these population centers.
Housing prices in Moab have almost doubled over the past three years, she said, and while some locals are still buying homes, that’s generally only possible for business owners or high-earning employees in the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
In mid-June, Beeson said, the cheapest home on the market in Moab had an asking price of more than $450,000 — well out of reach for the many service workers who power the city. And while there are some affordable housing projects in the area, she said, most of the construction is of hotels and fancy town homes targeted to out-of-towners.
“People want to come here, and every blade of grass is getting developed,” she said. “And every grain of sand seems to have something on it.”
‘Step up to the plate’
Myers and Shepard say leaders more recently have been proactive in trying to manage Moab’s surging visitation and its related housing crisis. They began requiring developers building new hotels or motels to also construct affordable homes for their employees or to contribute to a city fund for new housing.
And with construction of new hotels, condos and houses intended for overnight rental blocked for the time being, officials have a breather that gives them time to plan for their community’s future.
The city also is taking a hands-on role in adding housing to the community, leading a project to build 80 affordable apartments and duplexes on a dilapidated mobile home park.
“That’s a pretty big step,” Shepard said. “Because we don’t have a lot of money.”
Residents currently living on the property are in line for housing in the new community, called Walnut Lane Apartments, but there will be plenty of units left over for other workers.
Myers, who’s leading the project, said it will probably take three to five years to complete.
Shepard also has noticed that private developers, many of whom are business owners in the city, seem increasingly willing to invest in affordable housing after watching their employees struggle to find places to live.
“The local folks and developers and store owners are starting to step up to the plate a little bit,” she said.
In the county there are also signs of progress, said Woytek, noting that the ongoing Arroyo Crossing project is slated to supply 300 affordable homes for Moab locals. The community is being built on land donated to the nonprofit Moab Area Community Land Trust. Homeowners will be prohibited from “flipping” the homes and from offering them as overnight rentals, the Times-Independent has reported.
Community Rebuilds, a nonprofit that has bulit dozens of affordable, straw bale homes in the Moab area, will be constructing some of the homes in the Arroyo Crossing project.
Woytek, who originally arrived in Grand County as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, said he’s never taken housing for granted in the sought-after city. He said he’s grateful he was able to move into one of the Community Rebuilds straw bale homes around the time he started a family.
“That’s how I’m lucky enough to have a stable housing situation,” he said. “Very, very, very lucky.”
The officers Edge has tried to hire haven’t been so fortunate. And the police chief said he’s still looking for lodging as the department aims to hire another six employees — a challenge he said many other businesses face, too.
“It’s not just an issue in the police department; it’s an issue countywide,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what job you’re working for the city or county or the state for that matter … people are having trouble finding housing.”