Amid all the discussion of science and economics as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the Moab area, for some the most important question is clear: how do I pay my rent?

“Especially during this time, having a place to call home is essential,” said Kaitlin Myers, senior projects manager for the City of Moab. “Housing is healthcare; it is essential community infrastructure; it is economic development; it is public safety.”

That’s why the City of Moab is joining with the Housing Authority of Southeast Utah, the Moab Valley Multicultural Center and Grand County government to ask for community donations to a local housing relief fund to help Moab citizens struggling with rent payments.

A week into the program, the Moab community has donated close to $13,000 as of May 5, according to Jenna Whetzel, development and housing specialist at HASU.

However, surveys of local need show that more support for struggling families is needed.

An urgent community need

Housing is always an important component of well-being; during COVID-19, in particular, it also means having a secure place to social distance and maintain strict hygiene.

As many businesses have closed or drastically reduced operations to slow the spread of the coronavirus, one side effect of measures to protect public health is that many people have lost their jobs or are experiencing a major drop in income.

Part of the federal stimulus package expanded unemployment benefits to try to address this gap. Traditional unemployment benefits have been increased by $600 a week through July 31. The package also offers up to 39 weeks of unemployment assistance to people not usually eligible for such relief, including self-employed workers and people who have exhausted their regular and extended benefits. There are also an additional 13 weeks of benefits available specifically for people who have exhausted their traditional benefits.

These expansions will cover many people who would otherwise be out of work and have no way of making an income. For example, seasonal workers who were about to start their seasons but are not being hired back under the closures are able to extend their benefits. Or people doing “gig work” or working as independent contractors are not usually able to collect unemployment. Under the CARES expansion, they can.

However, Myers and Mila Dunbar-Irwin, community and economic development specialist for Grand County and the Grand County representative for the Housing Relief Fund, told the Moab Sun News in a conference call that there are many Moab citizens who still fall through the cracks and need assistance to pay their rent. Some still have not received unemployment or don’t qualify for a stimulus check.

Myers also mentioned people who have recently moved to Moab with the expectation of starting a seasonal job that hasn’t materialized, as well as workers who are paid in cash and may not have documentation of income.

To fill that gap, the fund organizers are soliciting donations from the community, suggesting that people who are still earning their regular income and have also received a stimulus check might consider donating the extra funds to someone in need.

Evidence for the need for additional housing assistance is not just anecdotal. The Moab Valley Multicultural Center conducted a needs survey on Facebook, which received about 50 responses.

They found that 29.4% of local respondents had to defer all or part of their rent payments and 54.9% said they would not be able to pay their upcoming May rent.

Housing experts calculated that just these respondents would need support of about $30,000 to stay current on their rent.

“We currently have $12,725 in the bank, but we’re definitely looking for more support,” said Whetzel. “This need and the reduction in tourism seem like they’re going to go on for multiple months, so we’re going to keep working on this fund and helping to support folks in our community.”

“If just 50 respondents need almost $30,000 in housing relief, what does that mean for the needs of our entire community as the May rent/mortgage payment approaches?” wrote Myers in a notice.

Bipartisan Support for fund

The fund has been endorsed by community leaders across the political spectrum.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus and Grand County Council Chair Mary McGann issued a letter endorsing the fund along with representatives of both major political parties in the county, Bob Greenberg for the Democratic Party and Jeramy Day for the Republican party.

Greenberg said that even though community members differ in their political views, they share a common value.

“They got behind the fund and wanted to support us and give us credibility,” said Whetzel. “It’s so important to have good bipartisan support.”

“Underneath it all I think is a real commitment to the welfare of the community,” Greenberg said of local politics. “People disagree on what that looks like, but when it comes to helping people in an emergency, there’s not a lot of room for disagreement.”

Dunbar-Irwin said that one reason this fund is so important is that housing relief is not as readily available as assistance for other essential needs.

“Rent and housing costs are ‘hard costs,’” she said.

She pointed out that for food or for child care, there are ongoing partial or temporary assistance options, like food pantries or afterschool programs. In contrast, she said, “You can’t parcel out part of your rent. You can’t go to the food pantry and get part of your rent paid.”

To donate to the housing relief fund, visit moabmc.org/covid-donate or mail a check made out to “MVMC” to PO Box 55 Moab, UT 84532. To apply for relief from the housing fund, visit moabcovid.org or call the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah at 435-259-5891.