Rents and real estate too high for wages, study says
by Cactus Moloney
The Times-Independent
Mar 29, 2018 | 927 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Moab Made employee Tamar Phillips is a Moab resident who finds it nearly impossible to make ends meet given the county’s low wages. 
						 Photos by Cactus Moloney
Moab Made employee Tamar Phillips is a Moab resident who finds it nearly impossible to make ends meet given the county’s low wages. Photos by Cactus Moloney

​ Industries across almost all sectors fall short of the wages necessary to meet current housing expenses for both buyers and renters, according to the Grand County Economic Development draft plan.

​ The plan shows a single worker can meet median monthly housing costs if they spend only 30 percent of their monthly wage. For example, a person working in accommodation and food services, which is the largest portion of Grand County’s workforce, can only afford to spend $404 on monthly rental fees. They can only afford a home purchase price of $46,998, which is 14 percent of the total amount they would need to match the median home sales price of $329,500.

​ Currently, an individual would need to make $37.75 an hour gross to purchase a home, according to the 2017 Moab Area Affordable Housing Plan.

​ “The city can’t [establish] a city-wide minimum wage,” said Moab City Communications Manager Lisa Church. “The legislature barred communities from doing that.”

​ In the wake of a recent salary survey, the city government has set an across-the-board policy for all city employees to be paid at least $15 per hour. The county is also in the process of making changes after its own wage comparison study.

​ The Utah Legislature follows federal minimum wage laws set at $7.25 per hour and has passed laws prohibiting municipalities from setting their own minimum wage.

​ “I’m not in favor of dictating how much employers pay,” said Utah Sen. David Hinkins. He believes wages are market-driven. An 18-year-old worker couldn’t start off at $37 per hour, for example. He explained this amount as being too high for businesses to afford. However, he recognizes that government subsidizes these lower-paid workers by way of Medicaid, food assistance and housing.

​ Median home prices in Grand County have risen 84 percent since 2003, from $135,000 to $329,500, according to the plan. That sharp rise is creating an affordability concern within the local housing market.

​ Grand County teachers are paid on average $50,055 annually. Averaging $26 per hour, this makes a teacher’s salary 37 percent less than the salary needed to purchase a house in Moab. Substitute teachers, custodians, kitchen servers/cooks and bus drivers make $10 per hour, making 116 percent less than needed to purchase a home.

​ The school district recently collected all salary schedules from across the state to make a comparison and then adjusted teacher’s salaries.

​ “A number of teachers have accepted positions and then had to resign because of housing,” said Grand County School District Business Administrator Robert Farnsworth.

​​ Grand County’s major revenue sources show — by evaluating property tax, state tax and transient room tax — the county’s revenue has increased from around $4 million in 2005 to $12 million in 2016. Moab’s sales tax revenue shows an increase of more than $3 million from seven years ago.

​ Church said a few county sheriff deputies have moved over to the Moab Police Department following the city wage increase. Recently, the police department has had to open up the residency requirement policy, on a limited basis, to allow some officers to live outside Moab because of the difficulty in finding housing here. Officers make an average of $52,000 annually. Currently there is one new officer who will be living in Green River and one animal control officer living in La Sal.

​ MPD Chief Jim Winder said the department will only allow a certain number of officers to live outside Moab because it is important for response times and engagement in the community to have the majority of officers living where they work.

​ According to Church, after the results of the salary survey completed by the city in 2016 were reviewed, police officer wages increased by an average of $3.57 per hour in January 2017.

​ By contrast with a couple of examples from the private sector, Moab Coffee Roasters barista Aaron Avoites works more than 40 hours a week. His starting salary was $9 per hour plus tips, with no benefits, but he receives raises. He splits his $1,300 monthly rent with a roommate. He has been able to save a little money.

​ “I don’t go out to eat and it goes into savings,” he said.

​ Julia Buckwalter has worked at Back of Beyond Books for two years and has received regular raises and benefits. “Everyone is always surprised to hear that,” she said. “People are willing to take a pay cut for this lifestyle.”

​ “As a local, you know what businesses are money makers,” Buckwalter said. “People talk about so-and-so treating their employees as expendables. You hear employers can’t afford to pay employees more or they will go under. People want to keep their jobs and feel they can’t speak up or have to be the sacrificial sore spot.”

​ Moab Made retail clerk, Tamar Phillips, said the cost of owning a house, having kids and getting married adds up.

​ “This is what grown-ups do,” Phillips said. “It is about balance,” she explained when choosing to make less money and not put her child in childcare. Phillips has a 33-year mortgage on a Community Rebuilds home. It costs her and her husband $850 a month, which is much less than her rent used to be. Plus her utilities are low because of her house’s sustainable design.

​ On these issues, newly elected City Council Member Karen Gutzman-Newton observes that, “The more successful you become as a city ... you end up hurting individuals who live here. She is the co-owner of Poison Spider Bicycles, and she notes that Moab “is now a resort destination and people can’t afford to live here. We have to encourage private businesses to do more. It has to be a social shift ... it is the responsibility of business owners to do right by employees.”

​ Some employees ask not to make too much money in order to qualify for affordable programs and healthcare benefits, she explained.

​ “Workers are stuck in the middle,” said Guzman-Newton.

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