City: ‘Committed to affordable housing’

By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent

In the not too distant future, developers who want to build a hotel or other temporary lodging in Moab might have to provide – or at least help to provide – a place for employees to live.

That’s the message the City of Moab is sending as part of its Assured Workforce Housing and Planned Affordable Housing ordinances now under review.

“We might be victims of our own success,” said City Planning Director Jeff Reinhart, regarding Moab’s status as a tourism Mecca. He cited two reports compiled by BAE Urban Economics, a real estate consulting firm that specializes in workforce housing. The city partnered with Grand County in commissioning BAE’s services.

The first was a feasibility study. The firm recognized Moab’s status as an outdoor destination, which provides an economic boon thanks to tourism, but has also driven housing costs out of the reach of much of the workforce.

The goal, said Reinhart, is to develop policies in both the city and county that require developers to do one of three things: provide affordable housing units that would be constructed within a larger development; pay $15.57 per square foot of floor area as an “in lieu” fee that would be used to financially assist affordable housing developers; or dedicate land either onsite or offsite that would be used for affordable housing.

Reinhart said there are currently plans to build four more motels or hotels in Moab in addition to what’s already on the table and under construction. He said Moab is “quite built out,” but that Planned Affordable Developments, or PADs, are allowed in almost every zone in the city.

Reinhart said he didn’t believe developers would pay “in lieu” fees rather than build affordable housing, a concern raised by City of Moab Planning Commissioner Allison Brown at a Sept. 27 meeting. He also said developers could take advantage of the Community Land Trust property, which the Housing Authority could incentivize by helping with impact fees. “The need is so great, I think those funds will be used pretty fast,” said Reinhart, now in his 11th year as the city’s planning director. The Community Land Trust is a nonprofit organization that can accept tax-deductible donations of land or money in support of developing affordable housing. It was created six years ago.

BAE said the city and county could charge developers fees based on total square footage – and codify those fees in its Assured Workforce Housing ordinance, while exempting affordable housing projects built by nonprofits, public purpose or government agencies; churches, child-care facilities, schools and publicly owned buildings.

The study also suggested that market rate housing projects could be exempted if they are affordable rental apartments or modestly priced single-family homes built to sell. As things stand now, very few of Moab’s working families can afford a home, said Reinhart.

The rental market is more reasonable, according to BAE, but there is a shortage of available rentals. According to Tracy Dutson, the city’s senior projects manager, the housing costs in Moab are higher than those in Salt Lake City – where the average annual salary is $28,000 more than what it is in Moab.

An estimated 200 jobs are going unfilled in the Moab area and the housing issue likely has something to do with that, but the unemployment rate in Utah is at a low 3.1 percent, a figure widely considered as “full employment,” said Carrie Mayne, the chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services in an interview with While Moab is a service-based economy, Mayne said all job sectors in Utah, with the exception of mining, face labor shortages.

For Reinhart, who has been working on housing-related issues in Moab since 2009, the partnership between the city and county is more than symbiotic. There is progress being made. “We’re all striving for the same effect, and that is to get some housing,” he said.

3% unemployment = 200 empty jobs

Having too many tourists is a problem most cities would love to have, but not when it results in a shortage of affordable housing for the very people needed to provide services to those tourists.

There are currently more than 200 unfilled jobs in Grand County, mostly in the City of Moab, according to the city. Meanwhile, there is a number of hotel and motel projects coming online and those lodges will need employees, employees who will need a place to live, adding more of a burden to the housing crunch.

Public officials have not turned a blind eye to the problem and there are a number of initiatives underway designed to bring relief.

The city is pursuing “assured housing,” a concept that calls on employers to provide housing to workers – or at least help provide it in some fashion. The city also is pursuing affordable housing, such as its potential purchase of a Walnut Lane trailer park that, ultimately, could provide 80 apartments, and planned affordable developments.

The Grand County Planning Commission just voted to recommend that the county council should approve the complex high-density housing zoning overlay, which provides incentives to developers to construct workforce housing along Highway 191 and Spanish Valley Drive.

While it might seem as if there’s no coordination between the two entities, City of Moab Planning Director Jeff Reinhart said the city and county are working closely together to ensure housing ordinances now under revision by both local governments are “as close to identical” as is possible.

While the term affordable housing has been bandied about rather consistently, it’s important to define what, precisely, it means. According to Tracy Dutson, the recently hired senior projects manager for the city, the term is far-reaching and could apply to the development of single-family homes priced low enough that moderate-income earners could afford to purchase one. It could also mean an apartment complex with the rental cost of most apartments subsidized by the government, or it could even mean a condominium or townhome with different requirements.

“The emphasis is on affordable,” said Dutson, who began his career 22 years ago. Dutson said one of the determining factors that is considered is the “area median income,” which restricts who can live in a given development to income levels, job status and other factors. Dutson said incomes could range from very low, low, and moderate, with the goal of creating a healthy and diverse neighborhood from an economic standpoint.

“The city is super engaged,” said Dutson, “because the city realizes, and has for a long time, that we’re in an affordable housing crisis. The fact the city has taken the step to hire an affordable housing professional backs that up.”

Dutson, who has spent most of his career counseling nonprofits on housing issues, said he’s happy to be working for the city.

The city’s first foray into the development business is an old trailer park on Walnut Lane featuring about 39 aged trailers. Dutson said the city is doing its due diligence. It doesn’t know what the cost will be because an appraisal is yet to be done, but it’s a good bet the nearly three-acre parcel will fetch a high price.

The only thing the city knows is that it will strive to limit disrupting the lives of the current tenants if it does end up owning the property. “When the property went on the market, the city saw that as a possibility current residents could be displaced if the new owner did something else with the property. That’s why they took the step to make an offer.”

The ultimate goal is to build 80 apartment units with most of them restricted to low-income earners with a few renters paying the market rate in order to establish the desired mixed-income demographic.

“The important thing here is that the city is committed to affordable housing,” said Dutson.