Housing authority feels pinch of land prices
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Jun 19, 2014 | 1747 views | 0 0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah (HASU) hasn’t had any problems finding qualified local applicants for its sweat-equity homebuilding program.

But the search for affordable lots on which to build those homes is turning out to be much harder, leaving the agency unable to meet the terms of a federal grant program that bulks up its operating budget.

As a result, HASU was recently forced to lay off three of its full-time employees, including executive director Robert Muir and two construction supervisors, according to HASU Board chairwoman Cathy Bonde.

Under the terms of its Mutual Self-Help Program grant, the housing authority was required to help low-income households build 22 homes over a two-year period.

However, it fell seven homes short of that requirement because it could not find any more lots within its applicants’ price range, according to Bonde.

“If construction of those homes was underway, we would still be in good standing with our grant,” Bonde said June 16.

The Mutual Self-Help Program is one of four programs that the housing authority administers. But it’s far and away the biggest of the bunch, so the loss of that funding is significant, according to Bonde.

“Because the Mutual Self-Help Program was two-thirds of our operating budget, we basically cut our staff by two-thirds,” she said.

In the wake of the layoffs, current HASU development specialist Ben Riley will take over as the authority’s director on July 1.

Riley has already spoken with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development officials to see if they can keep the Mutual Self-Help Program on hiatus.

“We’re not sure if that’s going to be possible or not,” he said.

One thing is clear, however: the housing authority will not be able to apply for Mutual Self-Help funding next year, according to Riley.

For now, Bonde anticipates that the self-help program will cease as soon as construction work wraps up at the site of a new twin home on Powerhouse Lane.

“At this point, it’s the last project we are doing [through the Mutual Self-Help Program],” she said.

A couple of full-time river rafting guides will live in the home, and the fact that they’re helping to build it themselves is one main reason why it’s so affordable, according to Riley.

There are also plenty of other qualified applicants who would be a perfect fit for the program, according to Bonde.

“These are people with good credit histories, people with good work histories,” Bonde said. “These are people who should qualify for a loan.”

Beyond Powerhouse Lane, the housing authority has helped build more than 120 homes in Grand and San Juan counties. It has also rehabilitated existing homes in Blanding, Monticello and Moab, and it developed the 60-unit Cinema Court Apartments, which are managed by another entity.

Most recently, HASU finished work last year on Desert Wind, a five-unit rent-to-own complex.

“They’re well-built single-family units that go for well below the market rate,” Riley said. “They’re not hard to fill.”

As Moab continues to grow, demand for that kind of housing will only increase, as hotel workers, retail clerks, restaurant servers and tourist guides all search for some place to call home. Yet low-income or subsidized apartment complexes in town all have long waiting lists, and Bonde said market trends favor higher-end developments that are beyond the average Moab worker’s price range.

“We live in a resort community and we have a tourism-based economy, and land seems to be more valuable for second homes and overnight rentals than homes for the people who work in this valley,” she said.

That raises one obvious question in Bonde’s mind: where will all those people end up?

“There’s a great concern about where the people who make up the workforce in this community are going to live,” she said.

But Bonde doesn’t see any obvious short-term solutions that will address those concerns.

“I don’t think that anybody has the answer to that,” she said.

Riley noted that other resort communities in the region, including Park City, have taken the initiative to mandate development of affordable housing.

“That’s kind of the model that other resort communities have,” he said.

There has been some local momentum in that direction, according to Bonde.

Several years ago, the city of Moab and Grand County signed off on an affordable housing task force plan. More recently, local developers have shown some interest in the idea of including an affordable housing component in their plans, according to Bonde.

“We have had a couple of developers come to us,” she said.

Unfortunately, she said, none of those projects would be ready in time to meet the Mutual Self-Help Program grant requirements.

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