The first time I ever laid eyes on Moab, it was the summer of 2004. I had just turned 30 years old and was traveling the Great American West under the guise of deciding if I wanted to mimic my hero, Hunter S. Thompson, and become a professional writer, abandoning a previous life as a sound engineer for studios and rock bands. I was a nomad with a lot of disposable income and I ended up staying in some pricey, private digs near City Market.
When I crossed the river that first time, I was enthralled. I only stayed in Moab for two days that year, but from what I could tell, even back then, the city looked like a small metropolis, with buzzing streets, a vibrant nightlife and bicyclists everywhere.
Now that I live here, I realize it’s no metropolis, but a small town in rural Utah that seems bigger because of the steady stream of visitors to our national parks. Moab also seems, to me, to be a city searching for its soul and its future.
Given the fact that I didn’t grow up anywhere near Moab — my upbringing consisted of a Navy dad that had to travel a lot for work — I did grow up in small towns in Utah, California and Nevada.
I know that the heartbeat of small tourist towns, with a population of 5,000 or less, rests with the locals and not necessarily those that come for a few days, spend their cash to see the sights and then vanish back home.
With that in mind, I have to wonder why Moab has seemingly failed to keep pace with affordable housing opportunities for locals or new transplants, like me.
It’s astounding to me that I can throw a rock in almost any direction in downtown and hit a business that has a “Help Wanted” sign in the window.
Alternately, I think I would be hard-pressed to hit an apartment complex or house with a “For Rent” sign on it, and if I did, the rent would probably be cost-prohibitive for anyone working for hourly wages in the local service or outdoor industries.
I’ve been lucky; my housing situation worked itself out within two weeks of landing here in Moab, but I am certain the stories I hear about people having to live in their cars, trucks or vans, or to sleep in a campground, have at least a grain of truth.
At the same time, I see new construction of hotels and condominiums happening in earnest. From what I can tell thus far, those condos aren’t zoned for Airbnb or Tripadvisor rentals, though I’d be willing to bet that some owners will do their best to fly under the radar and do it anyway for the sake of making a quick buck.
So what are the answers to this rapidly worsening question?
In my discussions with business owners on Main Street, there are multiple ways to approach this issue; first and foremost, those I spoke with say the cost of raw land and the high price of development make it profitable only for large, outside corporate interests that really have no personal investment in Moab. Because of this, they say more partnerships between public and private entities, along with a specific goal of utilizing TRT monies to assist in developing affordable housing, would do a lot to alleviate the situation as it stands.
Like I said before, I was lucky to find my home the way I did, and I am even considering buying here someday. But what of the new arrival that is super stoked and way pumped to be working in this little slice of heaven in Utah — but has to live at the hostel or in a camping spot for months before they can make the local connections they need to live somewhere long-term?
It is my hope that, as the races for mayor and city council go forward, the candidates will continue to make affordable housing the number one priority of Moab’s future, lest we gentrify this town’s soul out of existence and become nothing more than a traffic-snarled row of hotels and outfitters.
Greg Knight is the editor of The Times-Independent. He can be reached at 435-259-7525, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.